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Ovid: The Art of Love

Notes for the translation by Rolfe Humphries of selections from the Amores and the Ars Amatoria.

Publius Ovidus Naso (Ovid):The Loves (25-16 BCE?)

Read the introduction to this translation. Some of the references to modern culture have dated since 1957, but it is still interesting and useful. What Humphries does not make clear is that these originally rather frivolous poems had a momentous influence on later European civilization. It was not only Chaucer who read Ovid’s love poetry; every educated person with the slightest interest in the subject did so. Unfortunately much of his humor was lost on Medieval interpreters, and they often discussed his ideas over-seriously in the context which came to be known as “courtly love”–a concept which would have been alien–and ridiculous–to Ovid. His beloved was typically a pretty but ordinary courtesan, not a noble lady in a tower. He makes it clear repeatedly that for him love (read “sex”) is a game much like poker, demanding great powers of strategy and deception, but not the very foundation of life itself. The continuing fame of these poems was owed partly to his authorship of a much greater work, the Metamorphoses, by far the most important source for Greco-Roman mythology for later Europeans. His Tristia recount his lonely banishment away from Rome at the end of his life. It is sometimes suggested that the puritanical Emperor Augustus exiled him because he was offended by Ovid’s love poetry, but this is uncertain.

If his voice seems amazingly contemporary it is because of his “modern” cynicism and frank pleasure in sex for its own sake. Some readers find him offensive, but in a familiar way: there are plenty of men around today who think just like him. What can take the edge of the offense is his self-deprecating humor. Note the many passages in which he is clearly making fun of himself. What is definitely not contemporary about Ovid is his love for mythological allusion. The modern reader may feel frustrated by these “interruptions” which were read fluently as decorative touches in his own time by an audience extremely familiar with the myths to which he alludes. Feel free to skim through these passages, but you may find that the following notes add a lot to your understanding of these writings by explaining the various allusions. He returns to some stories over and over again. Rather than constantly repeat the same explanations, I have created links so that you may look up figures discussed earlier. Remember that after following a link you need to click the “back” button to return to the spot where you were reading. In these notes the Roman names are generally used, i.e. “Ulysses” rather than “Odysseus,” “Jupiter” rather than “Zeus.”

Book I:

Elegy I

Ovid’s contemporary Virgil had begun his most famous poem, the Aeneid, with the line “Arms and the man I sing.” These elegies are written in lines shorter by one foot than the hexameters that are used for more solemn epic works like the Aeneid.

Minerva (Greek Athena) is the goddess of wisdom, not normally mixed up with the love-goddess Venus. Ceres is the grain-goddess, Diana the huntress of the forests. Apollo is the god of peaceful arts like poetry and music, Mars the god of war. Orpheus was also a demigod of music. In other words: “Don’t mix things up: stick to what you’re good at.”

Helicon was the home of the Muses, inspirers of the arts; so Cupid is rebuking Ovid for thinking that he is the center of the creative universe when he’s only a participant on the fringes. Note how even Ovid, always heterosexual, casually offers homosexuality as an alternative.

How does Cupid answer his claim that he cannot write love poetry because he is not in love with anyone?

Myrtle is associated with Venus.

Elegy II

The stereotype of the sleepless lovesick youth was long established by the time Ovid expressed it, but he conveys a particularly vivid impression of it. Remember that such love-longing was diagnosed as a clinical illness in ancient times, usually treatable only by lovemaking.

Note his ingenious examples of self-defeating struggle. He gladly surrenders to Cupid, telling him that he can celebrate a triumphal procession of the kind allotted to military leaders who succeeded in adding territory to the Roman Empire, but decorated with objects associated with Venus, such as a myrtle wreath substituted for the usual laurel. Captured prisoners were a feature of such processions.

“Hosannahs” is of course biblical Hebrew, and only a loose translation for a word meaning “cheers.”

What sort of companions does he say Love has?

Bacchus was thought of as an “eastern” god, and said to have invaded and conquered India.

The final lines are an obsequious compliment to the mercy of Augustus, the same ruler who–nevertheless–was to banish the poet from Rome.

Elegy IV

Most of these poems are addressed to single young women, mostly courtesans. This particularly outrageous example of Ovid’s humor may well be a cynical fiction. Obviously if he was trying to keep an affair such as this secret, he would not have published the poem. (Publishing consisted in the hand-copying of works for sale, and Ovid was a best-selling author.) The humor of the poem lies in the poet’s frantic jealousy of his mistresses’ husband. His elaborate system of symbolic gestures is meant more to be amusing than serious, as the conclusion reveals. To understand this poem one needs to understand that dining was normally done reclining on couches, leaning on one elbow, two to a couch.

The Lapith king Peirithoüs tried to make peace with the savage Centaurs, half-man, half horse, by inviting them to his wedding. However, the drunken Centaurs tried to carry off the Lapith women and restarted the war they had been fighting earlier. The scene was often depicted in sculpture, notably on the pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.

The ancient Greeks and Romans mixed their water with wine to prevent its being too intoxicating, unless they were single-mindedly bent on getting drunk.

Why is the poet especially anxious about the acts that may be hidden under the couples’ robes?

Note the traditional reference to the “cruel door.”

Note the assumption that men’s pleasure in lovemaking is strongly dependent on that of women.

What effect do the last two lines have on your impression of his relationship to this woman?

Elegy V

This one is pure sex. If you are liable to be offended by the subject matter, you may skip it. The time is the mid-day break, when almost all Italians still take an after-lunch nap. Here we meet Corinna, the main subject of these poems.

Semiramis was a mighty Assyrian Queen whose original name was Sammuramat (r. 810-805 BCE), and who was responsible for huge construction projects during her reign. However, legends developed around her, first transforming her into a goddess and later into a highly romantic figure. One of these legends is retold in Rossini’s opera Semiramide.

Lais was a Corinthian courtesan legendary for her extraordinary beauty.

Pro forma means something like “for appearances’ sake.”

Ovid belongs to the old school of thought which does not take women’s reluctance to engage in sex seriously. Although this pattern of thought has caused a lot of damage over the centuries, and continues to do so, it is important to remember that in the past both men and women accepted the notion that courtship usually involved the overcoming of resistance, the latter necessary to prove that the woman was not utterly debauched. This poem would not have conveyed any notion of rape to ancient readers. This is the most explicit poem about lovemaking in all of Classical Latin literature.

Elegy VI

The door poem (Greek paraklausithyron) was a highly stereotyped form. It is enough for the poet to mention a door, and the entire situation is brought to mind: the lover shut out, complaining, from the woman locked within. This one, however, is original in that it is addressed to the doorkeeper, chained to his post. The refrain printed in italics suggests a ritual hymn, for it is not the sort of thing normally used in secular poems like this.

This poem introduces another traditional symptom of lovesickness: loss of appetite. Under what condition would the poet be willing to be a slave like the doorkeeper?

Boreas, the north wind, fell in love with Oreithiya, daughter of Erectheus, king of Athens. Since the north wind blew to Greece from the direction of Thrace, Boreas was thought of as a Thracian, a people hated by the Athenians. Rejected by her father, he swooped down on Oreithiya and carried her off to Thrace.

A “chaplet” is a decorative garland worn to parties. It was traditional for lovers to hang their garlands on the beloveds’ doors as an offering, but he flings his on the doorstep as a symbol of his wasted night. Note although the poem recounts his utter failure, by retelling the story in a poem he clearly hopes to influence the woman who has instructed her slave to keep the door locked.

Elegy VII

For most of its length, this poem seems a sincere attempt at repenting his violence against Corinna. He realizes he has brutalized her and is trying to make up with her by accusing himself. However, the final impish line is ambiguous. It could mean that he isn’t truly repentant: he is more embarrassed than contrite. Or it could be a satire on his own superficiality.

At first, trying to justify his use of violence, he cites other wild madmen from the past, including Ajax, the great Trojan War hero, who in a crazed fit of spite at having not been awarded the dead Achilles’ arms, ran amuck among the herds under the delusion that the cows were his Greek enemies.

Orestes was famous for avenging the murder of his father Agamemnon by killing his faithless mother Clytemnestra. He was punished for this deed by madness.

Note how he quickly rejects his own argument.

The beautiful princess Atalanta was abandoned as a baby, but suckled by a bear and raised by hunters. She swore to remain unmarried so she could continue to pursue her favorite but unfeminine pastime of hunting. Her father Iasus was king of Maenalus

Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos of Crete who helped Theseus slay the Minotaur and for her pains was abandoned by him on the island of Naxos.

Cassandra was a Trojan princess who resisted Apollo’s attempts to seduce her. According to one story, he granted her the gift of true prophecy, but when she continued to resist, he cursed her: no one would ever believe her prophecies. At the fall of Troy, Ajax raped her at the foot of the altar of Athena. In the original all three of these are loosely linked by references to their hair.

The Greek Diomedes was said to have wounded Venus (who sided with the Trojans) in battle.

Ovid goes on sarcastically to urge himself to celebrate his “triumph” over Corinna with a procession like that described above in the notes to Elegy II.

Jove is another name for Jupiter, the mighty sky god of thunder and lightning.

What are the two alternatives he says he wished had happened instead of his brutal assault on her?

Paros was renowned for its white marble.

Whatever you think of his behavior, the final lines reveal considerable insight into the nature of guilt. What two alternatives does he offer to make himself feel better?

Elegy XIII

“The bright one” is Aurora, the dawn, who leaves the bed of her aged lover Tithonus each morning, her rosy fingers turning the sky pink. Because she gets no pleasure from him any longer, she is jealous of other lovers. Memnon was her son, an Ethiopian king, the smoke from whose funeral pyre was transformed into starlings which returned annually to his grave to sprinkle it with water.

This is one of many poems calling upon the dawn to hold back its coming so that the delights of nighttime may be prolonged. The line “Run slowly, slowly, horses of the night” is frequently quoted. What other kinds of people besides lovers does he say would like the nights to be longer?

Spinning and weaving were enormously time-consuming tasks that almost all women engaged in whenever they were not doing other work.

The sun was imagined to ride across the sky in a chariot, so Ovid wishes its axle would break.

Aurora asked the gods to give her Tithonus immortal life, but she forgot to ask them to keep him young. Tragically, he aged indefinitely and grew ugly and repulsive to her.

When the virginal moon goddess Luna fell in love with the beautiful youth Endymion he was punished by Jupiter by being put permanently, eternally to sleep.

Jupiter, desiring Amphitryon’s wife Alcmene, disguised himself as her husband and miraculously prolonged the night in order to prolong his pleasure with her. As a result, she bore the hero Hercules.

Note the humor in the final lines. Ovid often portrays himself as a loser.

Book II

Elegy II

This is one of Ovid’s cynical celebrations of adultery as a harmless game. In the Middle Ages adultery was to become transformed into a quasi-religious ritual, very different from this, but often involving the same complications.

Bagoas is the slave employed by Ovid’s mistress’ husband to guard over her. Ovid threatens and cajoles him in an attempt to have some “harmless” fun with the wife. This list of instructions may be compared with those to the wife in Book I, Elegy 4. The Palatine Hill overlooking the Forum was the site of the homes of rulers of Rome.

The rites of Isis were supposed to be attended only by women, so the guard would have to stay outside.

“Gaol” is the English spelling for “jail.”

Tantalus was punished in Hades by being confined in a pool with a fruit tree bending over it. When he stooped to drink the water, it flowed away; when he reached for the fruit, it sprang out of his reach, tantalizing him.

“Argo” seems here to be simply a synonym for Argus , the hundred-eyed guard set to guard Io.

Flagrante dilecto is a legal term meaning “in the act” (literally “flagrantly committing the crime”).

Elegy VI

Ovid’s elegy to a pet bird is much longer and more complex than Catullus’, a fact which does not necessarily make it better. The main difference is that Ovid plunges into the realm of myth, as he so often does, to develop his thought. One can see why this poet went on to write the Metamorphoses.

Note that Corinna’s parrot came from India, a distant land on the borders of the empire which was reputed to harbor all manner of wonders.

All birds are summoned to perform the funeral rites: scratching one’s cheeks and breast was a standard form of ritual grieving.

Philomela is the nightingale. Itys was killed, cut up, and cooked by his mother Procne and fed to her husband Tereus in vengeance for his rape of her sister Philomela.

Damon and Pythias were friends in Syracuse whose loyalty to each other became legendary.

It seems odd that quails were reputed to be especially long-lived, since it is in fact parrots which have been known to live quite long lives.

“Water, perfectly pure” implies that no wine was mixed with it: pure water was the preferred drink of advocates of the simple life as a means to health.

Pursued by Triton, a Phocian princess prayed to Minerva to be rescued, and was turned into a raven which became the goddess’ companion. However, later Minerva rejected the bird for tale-telling in favor of the owl.

Protesilaus was an eager hero, the first to land (and die) at the Trojan War whereas Thersites was an ugly, deformed coward who jeered at his own leaders. Similarly, Homer depicts Hector (who killed Protesilaus) as the courageous leader of the Trojan forces, disdainful of his younger brother Paris, who had caused the war by carrying off Menelaus’ wife Helen.

Hector’s father Priam opposed the war from the beginning, had to plead with the Greeks for his son’s body, and was ignominiously slain at the end of the war.

The thread of life was spun out, measured, and cut by the three women known as Fates.

Elysium (or “the Elysian Fields”) was a paradise mortals who had been made immortal lived. Some writers like Ovid portray it as a reward for virtue: in others it is simply the abode of those who have pleased the gods, not always by good behavior.

There was only one phoenix which periodically set itself on fire and was reborn. It is not usually associated with Elysium, but Ovid is reaching for relevant mythological birds.

Juno, the wife of Jupiter, had as her companion a peacock.

Which of the parrot’s qualities attracts most of Ovid’s attention (unsurprisingly, given his vocation as a writer)?

Elegies VII & VIII

This pair of elegies inspires indignation in some readers: What an outrageous liar and cheat! The mean-spirited attempt at blackmail at the conclusion of Elegy VIII is especially revolting. Other readers find the poet’s impish antics highly amusing. But it is important to remember that it is Ovid the poet who has created these two works and set them side by side to create the portrait of an unscrupulous philanderer that results. This is no pair of private letters, but a satirical set piece, carefully conceived to portray a probably fictional lover who thinks he can get away with anything, but who is in fact in deep trouble–rejected both by Corinna and Cypassis. The narrator in these, as in all the poems, is a persona created by the author but not necessarily to be identified with him on every point.

Both Agamemnon and Achilles were great warriors infatuated by slaves.

Elegy XIII

Abortion, though disapproved of in Rome, was not uncommon; but the means used were highly dangerous to the woman. On what grounds does the poet object to Corinna’s abortion attempt?

Posse =”could be;” esse= “is.” The poet prays to the Egyptian goddess Isis, the special guardian of women. Osiris is her brother/husband.

The passage about the Gallic horsemen evidently refers to sculptures near the temple of Isis. Note how Ovid observes his own tactlessness in the final lines.

Elegy IX

Corinna’s husband (unmentioned previously) seems to be making her affair with the poet insufficiently difficult. The poet argues that obstacles created by his rival stimulate his passion. This sort of sophisticated perversity is far removed from the direct passion of a Sappho. Clearly the poem is not to be read literally. He would not have sent this poem to the betrayed husband; he is merely satirizing what he sees as his foolish tolerance. Cuckolds (men whose wives commit adultery) are the object of much satirical humor from ancient times through the 18th century. He also tries to arouse jealous fears in the husband, taunting him.

Danae’s father Acrisius, learning from an oracle that his grandson would kill him, imprisoned her in a bronze cell but Jupiter (Jove) impregnated her in the form of a shower of gold. Juno’s jealous attempt to prevent Jove from making love with Io by turning her into a cow failed when he continued to pursue her.

The tablets brought by the maid would have been letters which were inscribed on wax-covered tablets.

Book III

Elegy II

This is a wonderfully lively portrait of a day at the races by a man who would rather look at women than horses. This translation is particularly colloquial, with many modern touches not strictly faithful to the original; but the spirit is captured vividly.

Pelops won the hand of the Princess Hippodameia by cheating in a chariot race, sabotaging his rival’s vehicle. He thinks his girlfriend may have prettier legs than even the beautiful Atalanta who raced against and won many suitors for her hand, only to be overtaken by Milanion when he distracted her with three golden apples given him by Venus.

Diana the huntress was also reputedly a swift runner. Thus does the poet combine his themes: beautiful women and racing.

The victory the poet prays for is of course over the woman’s resistance.

Neptune was god of the sea, which Ovid hated.

A common sort of miracle in ancient Rome was the reported nodding of the head of a god’s statue, signifying approval of a prayer.

The poet says he will worship the woman more than Venus herself.

Ovid reworked this poem in a passage of Book I of The Art of Love (below).

Elegy IV

This is a variation of the address to the cuckolded husband, but this time the argument is that possessiveness only makes a wife restive and more likely to betray her spouse. Sentiments like these were repeated in countless tales and poems in the late Middle Ages. Jealousy, it was insisted, destroys love. This is of course a convenient philosophy for a would-be seducer of wives.

Her “person” is her body.

Argus is usually said to have been killed by Hermes, but Ovid says he was blinded by love.

See the notes to Book II, Elegy XIX for Danae.

Penelope was Ulysses’ (Odysseus’) wife, who waited faithfully for his return from the Trojan War for twenty years, despite being besieged by numerous suitors.

The poet even goes so far as to argue impudently that adultery (strictly outlawed in Augustine’s Rome, though the law was frequently broken) is not only a trivial matter, but can be highly respectable, citing instances from mythology, which indeed abounds with illicit unions–one of the reasons that the Greeks and Romans did not base their ethics on their religion.

The notion that all women beautiful enough to attract lovers will have them is repeatedly endlessly in late Medieval and Renaissance satires. An entire book of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel is based on this theme. Obviously those who thought of themselves as potential lovers hoped this was so. From ancient times to the 19th century, the stereotype of the uncontrollable sexuality of women dominated much thinking about them. The rise of Victorianism, which viewed men as more sexual than women, marked a revolutionary change in European thinking, and one which did not go unchallenged.

According to Ovid, what are the advantages of being a cuckold?

Elegy XIA & B

Ovid tries to bid farewell to the fickle Corinna, but finds he cannot.

There is a saying that “Jove laughs as the oaths of lovers.” Ovid accuses the gods of corruption in supporting such laxity. Even if she rejects him, he will continue to love her.

The Art of Love (2-1 BCE)

The Art of Love uses the same impudent, witty tone that pervades much of the Loves, but without their anguish. It had enormous influence in the Middle Ages, when it was studied seriously as a source on the true nature of love, but was also often considered scandalous.

Book I

“Car” in this translation means “chariot.” The word “car” existed in English for horse-drawn vehicles long before the invention of automobiles.

Automedon was Achilles’ charioteer in the Trojan War.

Tiphys steered the Argo through many hazards under the leadership of Jason.

Achilles was educated as a boy by the aged centaur Chiron.

Achilles kills Hector in one of the climactic scenes of the Iliad. Apollo inspired lofty lyric verse, Clio was sometimes considered the muse of epic poetry. Why does Ovid say he doesn’t need divine inspiration to write this work?

Perseus’ wife Andromeda came from Ethiopia, not India; but ancient writers often confused the two countries as equally distant and exotic.

The Grecian girl Paris took was of course Helen, wife of Agamemnon.

The sheltered spots convenient for meeting women include Pompey’s portico built to shelter people at the theater in case of rain, the Portico of Octavia, the sister of Augustus (born Octavian), and the Portico of Livia. The Temple of Palatine Apollo was built during Augustus’ reign and was surrounded by porch decorated with statues of the fifty daughters of Danaus who murdered their husbands. All were popular shady gathering spots near places of entertainment. The other spots mentioned are places of worship in Rome where Ovid says willing women can be encountered.

Many Jews lived in Rome, and a considerable number of Romans converted to the religion.

The section on the law courts involves an elaborate series of puns in Latin comparing legal battles to courtship.

In the section on the theater he depicts the abduction of the Sabine women , which took place at an outdoor festival they had been invited to (see the note for the “Vigil of Venus.”) Then follows the racetrack passage which reworks Book III, Elegy II. Most scholars prefer the first version; can you see why?

No aspect of Roman life, despite the violence of our popular entertainments, is more alien to us than the pleasure the Romans took in watching human beings be killed in gladiatorial shows. How does Ovid say the spectator can become the victim at one of these shows?

Our translation here skips ahead to a passage about looking for women at a military triumph. He uses it as an excuse to flatter shamelessly the political accomplishments of Augustus Caesar and his grandson Gaius Caesar who failed to succeed him as emperor, despite Ovid’s prophecies of a brilliant career. He imagines that their campaign against the Parthians will result in a brilliant triumphal march, thus justifying this lengthy digression.

In the section on parties, he warns against falling at love while under the influence of wine. Paris was asked by Venus, Juno, and Minerva to judge which of them was the most beautiful (the scene, called “The Judgment of Paris,” has been often depicted in paintings).

What does he say is the other disadvantage to falling for a woman at a party?

Baiae was a resort near Naples. Women frequently attended processions in honor of Diana Nemorensis at Aricia, about ten miles south of Rome. Propertius writes about Cynthia’s participation.

Having established where women are to be found, Ovid now begins to describe how to seduce them. Summarize his views on feminine psychology in the section beginning “First: be a confident soul.”

There follows a list of monstrous feminine passions from mythology whose point is that if women have been known to go to such lengths for passion’s sake, surely they will be willing to engage in a more normal love affair.

For Byblis, see the Metamorphoses, ix:, ll. 447-665. Myrrha, like Byblis, repented of her incestuous passion and hanged herself.

Queen Pasiphae’s affair with the great bull of Crete resulted in the birth of the minotaur. As he often does, Ovid proceeds to group together myths with a similar theme, in this case humans and cattle. Europa was carried off by Jupiter in the form of a bull, a scene often depicted in art. After mentioning Io and Europa, Ovid returns to Pasiphae and the wooden cow she had built to enable her to mate with the bull.

Aerope, wife of Atreus, had an affair with her brother-in-law Thyestes which led to a deadly feud, leading ultimately the infamous banquet at which Thyestes was deceived into eating the dead bodies of his own children. In horror, day turned to night, described here as Phoebus Apollo, charioteer of the sun, turning his vehicle around to abort its rising.

Scylla’s magic lock of hair protected him until his daughter betrayed him out of love for Minos. This Scylla is here identified with the sea-monster described in the Odyssey.

Agamemnon, commander of the Greek forces at Troy, returned home to be slain by his faithless wife Clytemnestra.

Creusa was the princess that Jason married after he rejected Medea. Medea took vengeance by killing her with a poisoned robe and then murdering her own children (see Euripides’ Medea).

The next three examples of monstrous female passion involve women who, frustrated in their attempts to seduce men, falsely accuse them of rape. The most famous is Phaedra, who tried to seduce her stepson Hippolytus (and is the subject of another tragedy by Euripides, the Hippolytus). Why do you suppose that such stories are so popular in many cultures?

The passage recommending securing the cooperation of the maid recalls Book II, Elegies VII & VIII, although he here warns against actually seducing her–at least until her mistress has been safely bedded.

After ten years of fruitless siege at Troy, the Greeks pretended to depart, leaving behind an enormous wooden horse, secretly filled with soldiers. After the celebrating Trojans had hauled the horse inside the city, the soldiers sneaked out under cover of darkness and threw open the gates of Troy to the waiting Greek troops.

How does Ovid recommend lovers take advantage of a woman’s anger with another man?

Why does he say it is an advantage to have succeeded in seducing the maid?

The Battle of the River Allia in 390 BCE was remembered bitterly as a disastrous defeat for the Roman (Latian) forces at the hands of the Gauls.

Jews in Rome popularized the idea of a Sabbath day of rest and the seven-day week.

Why does he recommend against courting on a woman’s birthday?

The scene with the peddler is a delightful little vignette which one could easily imagine being acted on the stage. The language is here somewhat modernized: the “check” is actually a promise to pay; but birthday cakes were genuinely Roman.

After Achilles killed Prince Hector at Troy and treated the body savagely, he was nevertheless persuaded to return it to King Priam for burial.

Cydippe was tricked into marrying her lover Acontius when he rolled in front of her an apple on which he had inscribed “I swear by Artemis to marry Acontius.” She picked it up, read it aloud, and realized she was now bound by the oath.

The next section recommends the study of rhetoric as it was studied by lawyers. Clever oratory was much admired in Rome. “Periods” are phrases.

Penelope’s suitors tried to get her to marry for many years, but she resisted them until her husband Ulysses returned home, twenty years after he had left. It took ten years to conquer Troy. What do you think of his advice on persistence?

The lover has to turn around to see the woman he loves in the theater audience because females were confined by law to the last few rows.

Rome did have actresses, but males also commonly played female parts.

Some men did curl their hair, but were not considered very manly for doing so.

The priests of the cult of Cybele shaved their legs as well as castrating themselves.

Adonis was a handsome youth with whom Venus fell in love.

Bacchus is the god of wine: he is suggesting that wine may help seduce a woman. This is the excuse for the story which follows. When Ariadne had been abandoned on Naxos by Theseus, she uttered long, bitter laments which became a stereotype in poetry; but Ovid rejects the version of the story which has her committing suicide and has her rescued promptly by Bacchus.

Hymenaeus is the god of marriage. Note the assumption that the woman may well be married, though this is not suggested elsewhere. Severe penalties against adultery were enacted about the time this was written, and it has sometimes been supposed that Ovid’s repeated celebration of the seducing of other men’s wives may have been one of the causes of his exile.

This section is developed out of materials originally used in The Loves Book I, Elegy IV. Eurytion was one of the centaurs killed in the battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs when the latter got drunk at the marriage feast of Pirithous.

What does Ovid say are the advantages of pretending to be drunk? His toast “to the fellow she sleeps with” is ambiguous, of course: the listeners think he is speaking of her husband, she knows he is speaking of the lover.

Juno and Pallas lost the beauty contest to Venus when judged by Paris. It was claimed that when Jupiter was carrying on his affair with Io, he swore falsely to Juno that he was not. From that time on he ordained that lovers should not be punished for their false oaths.

Styx, the river of death, was the only entity by which the gods swore.

What is his excuse for saying it is all right to cheat women?

The myth of King Busiris of Egypt may reflect a distant memory of human sacrifices carried out in Egypt.

Since it never rains in Egypt, the rains referred to may be those far upstream which cause the Nile to swell.

Phalaris was a historical figure, the cruel tyrant of Acragas in Sicily c. 570-554 BCE. He had a hollow bronze bull designed in which to roast human sacrifices; but the first victim was its designer.

Note the repeated insistence that women’s resistance is not to be taken seriously. The Romans tended sometimes to romanticize rape, as in the rape of the Sabine women, although it could also be considered a terrible crime, as in the rape of Lucretia, who was praised for committing suicide when raped by Sextus Tarquinius after making her husband swear to kill the rapist.

Phoebe and Hilaira were sisters abducted by the Dioscuri, considered sons of Jupiter: Castor and Pollux.

Achilles’ mother Thetis tried to thwart the prophecy that he would die at Troy by isolating him on the island of Scyros and having him raised as a girl. However, he fell in love with the princess Deidamia, revealing his gender when he raped her.

The triumph of Venus on Mount Ida was her winning of the beauty contest judged by Paris. She won by bribing Paris with Helen, an act which triggered the Trojan War.

Pallas Athena, though female, was also awar goddess, and is usually portrayed with helmet, spear, and shield.

Achilles killed Hector with a spear, of course, and not a skein of wool

What evidence is there toward the end of this section that although Ovid has few scruples about using force, he isn’t really enthusiastic about it?

Here is introduced another element in the description of love-longing which was to become standardized for centuries: pallor.

The legends of Orion and Daphnis (“the shepherd-boy”) referred to here are lost, but the point is clear.

Thinness is another classic symptom of love-longing.

Patroclus and Achilles were such close friends that the latter was persuaded to rejoin the battle against Troy after quitting because he felt cheated of his proper battle spoils only when Patroclus was killed by Hector, and Achilles felt bound to avenge his friend. This is the central action of Homer’s Iliad. Part of those spoils was the maiden Briseis, whose relationship to Achilles Patroclus respected.

Achates is the loyal companion of Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid, and his name became synonymous with friendship.

Proteus was famous for his ability to transform himself into myriad shapes.

Book II

The first two parts of the book have explained how to find and capture a woman. This part tells how to keep her.

Homer and Hesiod were the early writers who recorded the classic myths, serving almost as a Bible to the Greeks.

Pelops won Hippodamia in a chariot race. The story of Daedalus has been often retold, including by Ovid himself, in the Metamorphoses. One can see him edging toward that work in such passages as these where he allows himself to get carried away with recounting a myth.

To say one is willing to swim the Styx is to say that one is willing to face death itself, since Styx is the river separating Hades from the land of the living.

The heat of the sun melted the wax holding Icarus’ feathers together. His story was often told to illustrate the consequences of reckless and immoderate behavior. The conclusion is simply that love cannot be controlled.

It was believed that foals were born with a growth on their foreheads which was immediately bitten off by its mother. However, if one could be secured intact it would be a wonderful love potion.

Medea was a powerful sorceress but she could not keep Jason from leaving her for Creüsa, whom she killed with a poisoned cloak. Ulysses’ men were transformed into animals by the sorceress Circe, but he managed to save himself and his men despite her magical powers.

What does he recommend instead of magic potions?

What are the most important qualities in a man, according to Ovid?

Ulysses lived with Circe on the island of Aeaea for a whole year and with the nymph Calypso on Ogygia even longer. In both cases he had difficulty convincing the women to let him go.

Rhesus was an ally of the Trojans, betrayed by a Trojan prisoner (Dolon) to the Greeks. How does Calypso use the telling of this story to argue against his departure?

Ovid makes it clear that his ideas of courtship do not aim at marriage. As in most ancient cultures, Roman marriages were arranged.

He alludes back to the incident depicted in the Loves, Book I, Elegy VII. He takes for granted that his earlier poems are well known to his readers. How is his advice in this section different from that at the end of Book I?

Atalanta was the athletic virgin who outran all her suitors although they ran naked, she in armor. Melanion finally caught her, however, with the trick described in the notes to the Loves, Book III, Elegy II.

Women used to be routinely advised to lose at games in order to please men; what is Ovid’s advice to men?

“Mules” are slippers.

According to some Roman writers, after the mighty Hercules defiled the temple of the oracle at Delphi, he was condemned to slavery and sold to Queen Omphale of Lydia, who, among other more heroic tasks, required him to dress as a woman, sing, and spin. The image of the hyper-masculine Hercules forced to behave in such an effeminate manner has amused many writers and artists. After many sufferings, Hercules was finally allowed to become an immortal and live among the gods.

Ovid compares love to war, but he does not emphasize aggression. What aspects of war does he use as metaphors for love?

When Apollo dared to restore a dead man to life, Jupiter punished him severely, and his continued defiance led to a sentence of working as a slave for a mortal for a year. It was at Admetus’ court that he labored.

The Greek Leander swam across the Hellespont to be with his beloved Hero. Noblesse oblige is a French phrase for the sort of politeness that social superiors owe to their inferiors.

On July 7th of each year the Romans celebrated the feast of Juno Caprotina (“under the fig tree”) in memory of an incident in which the Gauls had demanded the Romans hand over to them certain matrons and virgins. Their maidservants were substituted, and when they were to be collected, signalled to the Roman troops to fall on the Gauls and destroy them.

Amaryllis is a typical Arcadian figure whose fondness for chestnuts was mentioned in Virgil’s Eclogue 2, line 52.

What does Ovid have to say about the value of poetry?

Medusa was a ferocious monster with snakes for hair whose fierce looks literally froze those who looked upon her.

What limit does Ovid place on the would-be lover’s attentions to his beloved when she is ill?

When Demophoon deserted his bride Phyllis, she committed suicide, and his own death ultimately resulted.

Laodamia grieved so for the husband she had lost at Troy that Hermes brought him back from the dead for three hours, but when he returned to Hades at the end of that time, she killed herself. These stories are all extreme examples of the saying “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

The counter-example, of course, is Menelaus. Most ancient authors were prone to blame Helen for her desertion of Menelaus, but Ovid, ever sympathetic to adulterous wives, is an exception.

Female worshipers of Bacchus, when filled with Dionysian frenzy, were supposed to be capable of ripping apart animals and even men with their bare hands.

Notice that the warning against jealousy is directed especially at husbands.

Clytemnestra hated her husband for many reasons, notably having sacrificed their daughter Iphigeneia to secure fair winds for Troy. His claiming of Briseis was a minor issue. He brought Cassandra, daughter of Priam, back from Troy as his prize. Clytemnestra’s lover Aegisthus, according to some versions, helped her murder Agamemnon upon his return home. The adulterous pair were subsequently murdered by her son Orestes. Ovid claims she was mainly motivated by jealousy in order to make her example suit his purpose.

Note how subtle is Ovid’s advice about effective lying.

Ovid’s list of aphrodisiacs is translated somewhat loosely here.

Ovid’s flip defense of his own inconsistency sows how unserious much of this advice is.

Fortuna was a very important goddess; those she smiled on were said to be fortunate.

Roucoulade is a French word referring to the cooing of doves.

According to some ancient thinkers, the universe was created out of a chaotic void. The world was not so much created as organized. Ovid’s creation story concentrates on how creatures learned to mate. The lesson is: doing it is nature’s way.

Machaon, son of Asclepius, was a physician from the Greek side at Troy.

On the temple of Apollo at Delphi was inscribed the famous motto, “Know thyself.”

In what way is Ovid’s advice of showing yourself off to best advantage self-deprecating?

The honey of Mount Hybla (and consequently its bees) was especially prized.

Ovid recommends the conventional gesture of hanging a garland on the woman’s door, referred to earlier.

The Oracle of Dodona was where Aeneas went for advice. Note how Ovid admits that he doesn’t always take his own advice.

When Venus was committing adultery with Mars, her husband Vulcan trapped them in a net and called the other gods to witness the crime; but they were amused instead and the result was shame for Vulcan rather than Venus. The lame Vulcan was the armorer of the gods, and worked at his forge inside the volcanic Mt. Aetna.

The sun-god is Apollo.

Paphos was an island sacred to Venus.

The famous Eleusinian mysteries of Ceres swore their participants to the utmost secrecy.

One version of the story of Tantalus says that he stole the sacred nectar and ambrosia of the gods and shared their secret with humanity. His punishment is discussed above, in the notes to the Loves, Book II, Elegy II. Venus was almost always portrayed nude, but often attempting to conceal her breasts and groin (see the Cnidian Aphrodite of Praxiteles or the Venus de Medici).

Easily-shocked readers are warned that the following section gets graphic. Again, “person” is archaic English for “body.”

Andromeda was an Ethiopian, but was generally considered beautiful. The prejudice against dark skin was mild, but pervasive. Perseus rescued her from a sea monster.

Andromache was wife of Hector, prince of Troy.

What a Young Girl Ought to Know was first published in 1895 by Mary Wood-Allen, National Superintendent of the Purity Department of Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and remained the standard (very restrained) book on sex for young women for decades. This is one of our translator’s little jokes.

Affairs with adolescent males were commonplace (though often disapproved of) in classical Rome, but the boys were not supposed to receive much pleasure from the sex involved. His objection to such affairs is not moral: he simply thinks the best sex delights both lovers. Much of Ovid’s graphic advice on lovemaking seems very contemporary.

Helen’s daughter Hermione was about nineteen when she was promised to both Orestes and Neoptolemus as a bride.

Hector was mostly famous as a warrior, but he did manage to wed Andromache.

Briseis was the captive Achilles won in the Trojan War.

Although experts on sex now advise against striving with undo anxiety for simultaneous orgasm, Ovid’s endorsement of it is generous, not self-centered.

The palm branch is a symbolic award for victory in a contest.

Nestor was the wise older advisor of the Greeks at Troy. The rest were as described.

Automedon was Achilles ‘ charioteer.

The Amazons were female allies of the Trojans defeated by Achilles and the Greeks.

Spoils from a victory were dedicated to the gods.

Book III

Ovid now turns to advice for women.

Amphiaraus was one of the heroes of the disastrous battle of the Seven against Thebes, and was saved from the shame of being speared in the back only by being sent by Jupiter directly to Hades, where the chief river was the Styx (” Stygian ” is the adjectival form). Eriphyle was bribed to betray her husband into death, which helped trigger the battle that ended the life of Amphiaraus, so like Menelaus and Agamemnon, he was a good man wronged by a wicked woman, though less directly.

When Admetus was told he could only be spared if someone else gave his or her life in his place, his wife Alcestis volunteered. Euripides’ Alcestis is a moving depiction of this story. Evadne committed suicide on the pyre of her husband Capaneus after his death in the battle of the Seven against Thebes. Note how readily Ovid condemns men as compared to women.

When Demophoon abandoned Phyllis , she ran nine times to the sea in search of him. The woods were said to have shed their leaves out of pity for her.

Aeneas, after having seduced Queen Dido of Carthage, abandoned her to continue to Italy, and she committed suicide.

Stesichorus wrote a poem expressing the conventional view that Helen was to blame for the Trojan War, but Venus angrily blinded him and he wrote a second poem claiming that she never deserted her husband, that the entire episode with Paris was a divinely-caused illusion. This story is the basis for the remarkably comic “tragedy” Helen by Euripides.

Myrtle was associated with Venus.

Note how his first advice is no warning against love, but a conventional carpe diem warning, taken to grotesque lengths. He is not really giving women defenses against men, but urging them to give in. Diana was normally chaste, but she fell in love with Endymion, who came from the region of Kariae, near Mount Latmos. Aurora (the dawn) was so infatuated with Cephalus that she carried him off, but the pink sky each morning reflects her shameful blushes.

Handsome Adonis was killed by a boar before Venus could make love with him.

The son Venus had by Anchises was the famous hero Aeneas.

She bore several children to her lover Mars, including Harmonia (an allegory for love overcoming war, creating harmony).

The next section concentrates on how women should make themselves seductive, but Ovid takes time to develop another passage flattering Augustus for his construction projects, though he says the most important improvements have been in manners rather than architecture. His time is still considered the “golden age” of imperial Rome.

Gold threads were sometimes woven into extravagant clothing.

These “makeover” tips will sound familiar to readers of modern women’s magazines.

Note how Ovid enthusiastically celebrates variety.

Hercules won Iole in an archery contest with her father.

According to some versions, abandoned Ariadne did not kill herself but was rescued and wed by Bacchus.

Purple Tyrian dye was rare and precious.

Neireids were sea-nymphs. The Romans and Greek made most of their garments from wool, though it was often very finely woven so as to be quite light, even translucent.

Andromeda was so beautiful that the jealous gods punished her island home of Seriphos.

Both Greeks and Romans generally practiced the removal of all body hair, at least when young.

A “Mysian mere” would be a lake where barbarians live.

The Art of Beauty, a treatise on make-up, is printed in this volume, but seems never to have been finished. What is his general attitude toward beauty aids?

The girl with the upside-down hair had of course snatched up her wig too hastily.

Parthian warriors were known for their trick of riding their horses backward in battle in order to shoot at those pursuing them; Ovid is joking that topsy-turvy hair is suitable only for barbaric Parthian women.

The women he says he is not trying to teach were all naturally famous beauties.

The stripes he mentions are decorative borders to clothing, permitted only to nobles.

Although his advice on hiding unattractive features may be exasperating, we’ve all heard advice like it by modern writers.

The Golden Mean–“nothing in excess”–was a solemnly-held ideal of the Greeks, here given a frivolous twist.

Ulysses had himself tied to the mast so that he could safely hear the alluring but dangerous song of the sirens while his men rowed safely on with their ears plugged.

Women were often depicted as musicians in Roman art.

Orpheus persuaded the spirits of the dead to restore his wife Eurydice to him through his skill on the lyre.

The Phoenician psaltery is a ten- or twelve-stringed instrument.

His list of love poets includes some we have read, and his contemporary and model Tibullus.

“Arms and the man” is the opening of Virgil’s Aeneid.

Lethe is the stream of death that obliterates all memory; Ovid is claiming his works will live on after him, and doing a little advertising for his books at the same time.

“Rolling the bones” is casting the dice: he is speaking of gambling.

The Romans did not play chess, but our translator here cleverly updates Ovid’s references to another board game.

One wonders what would have happened if a man, having read Ovid’s advice in Book II to lose, were to play against a woman who had read his similar advice to women here. Such inconsistencies reveal his essential light and frivolous attitude.

His praise is once more directed to “our leader” Augustus, who in his youth had defeated the rebellious naval forces of Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium. Agrippa was Augustus’ son-in-law, who built a memorial to the battle.

The crimson on the sand and the games was blood from the gladiatorial combats.

In the section about over-elegant men Ovid finally offers some advice for women which can legitimately be called defensive.

[The meaning of the reference to Priam is disputed.]

Note the gifts-for-sex equation which is still popular among many men today.

Hemlock and aconite are powerful poisons.

It is audacious of Ovid to suggest that a woman’s refusal to have sex is equivalent to violating the sanctity of the Temple of the Vestal Virgins.

Etna is a volcano.

Medusa’s glance turned men to stone.

Minerva was said to have invented the aulos, or double flute; but when she saw how playing it distorted her features by looking at her reflection in the water, she abandoned it.

Tecmessa was Ajax ‘s captive wife, melancholy at having been enslaved.

Andromache’s role in myth as the wife, then widow of Hector, was a sad one. Ovid may be thinking of her image in Euripides’ drama named after and in his Trojan Women. A herald precedes a notable person, announcing his or her name.

Cynthia was Propertius’ beloved, Lesbia Catullus’. For the now more obscure Nemesis, Tibullus ‘ love, our translator has substituted Delia, one of Diana’s names, but often used as a name for women generally.

Note how after having criticized his own art as useless, he here praises it. Clearly he is aware that his advice will be read skeptically; he is simply trying to charm by being amusing.

Ovid pretty consistently recommends mature men as lovers. What are his objections to young men in this section?

The advice about stimulating love through jealousy recalls the Loves, Book II, Elegy XIX, but less amusingly.

Thais was a famous Athenian courtesan; as a professional she could choose her lovers as she pleased.

The passage about women “set free, and not too long ago” is addressed to recently-freed slave women, called “libertinae.”

For Danae, see the notes on the Loves, Book II, Elegy XIX.

Bona Dea (the ” Good Goddess “) was worshiped only by women.

Note how Ovid characteristically interrupts himself, amazed at giving his secrets away.

The story of Procris is another of the long interpolations which anticipate the Metamorphoses, and differs substantially from more familiar accounts of her story.

He repeats his comments on drinking at parties, this time directed at women, for whom they may have more dire consequences.

Having earlier recommended attractive postures for repose, he now goes so far as to suggest which lovemaking positions are the most attractive in a passage which readily calls to mind the term “sex object.”

Note that although he suggests faking an orgasm if necessary, he regrets having to do so. He is fairly consistently sympathetic with women’s needs for pleasure.

The final recommendation against asking for gifts seems rather self-interested.

Which of Ovid’s suggestions do you find most objectionable? Which do you most agree with?

The Remedies for Love (1 CE?)

Most of the mythological references have been explained above. Use your “find” menu if you cannot recall one.

Like the Loves, this book begins with a dialogue with Cupid in which Ovid defines the purpose of the book: not to take back what he has said in The Art of Love, but to help those who have experienced unhappiness in love.

Diomede wounded Venus at Troy, sending her fleeing the battlefield. Cupid’s stepfather is Mars, the god of war.

Telephus’ wound could only be healed by rust scraped from the spear which caused it.

Phyllis, Dido, and Medea are all familiar examples of abandoned women used in The Art of Love.

The stories of Medea, Tereus and Pasiphae all illustrate extreme actions undertaken for love.

Nisus was betrayed by his daughter

Scylla for the love of Minos.

Myrrha seduced her father and was turned into the tree which “weeps” myrrh.

Philoctetes’ wound smelled so horribly that his fellow-Greeks abandoned him on the Island of Lemnos until they realized that his magical bow, inherited from Hercules, was necessary to end the Trojan War. Ovid omits to mention that Philoctetes’ cure did not save his life: he was destined to die at Troy.

After beginning by recommending swift action, Ovid recommends a number of measures, most of which would not be out of place in modern articles on “women/men who love too much.”

The reference to the Parthian defeat (actually a minor triumph of negotiation rather than a true victory) is another piece of flattery aimed at Augustus.

Whereas the pastoral poets imagined the countryside as the land of love, the urbane Ovid images it as a refuge. Diana the huntress is especially associated with the forests, and as a virgin goddess is an enemy of Venus. He must have recalled this advice ruefully when he was banished to the countryside himself.

The Tiber is the river that flows through Rome.

Note Ovid’s characteristic self-mockery as he recounts his attempts to convince himself that Corinna wasn’t really beautiful.

The Harpies were loathsome bird-like women sent by Zeus to punish King Phineas of Thrace by snatching away his food and leaving their droppings all over his table.

The Trojan prince Aeneas led his band of refugees from Troy to Italy to found Rome.

Buskins were the footwear worn by tragic actors, comic actors wore “socks.”

Callimachus was a prolific Hellenistic poet, but no writer of epics.

See above, Book I, for Cydippe’s ruse (strictly speaking, Acontius’ ruse). Ovid is arguing that this story is so trivial that it hardly requires the talents of a great poet like Homer to tell it.

Andromache figured in tragedies, Thais in comedies.

Bucephalus was Alexander the Great’s marvelous horse.

Ovid recommendations about associating the beloved with unpleasant feelings sounds remarkably like some modern psychiatric advice.

The asp, though tiny, was a deadly serpent, used famously by Cleopatra to commit suicide.

Minos betrayed his wife Pasiphae with Procris.

Agamemnon fell in love with the captive Briseis and insisted on Achilles exchanging Chryseis for her, which led to Achilles withdrawing temporarily from the Trojan War.

Thersites was the stereotype of the unworthy soldier.

Pylades was such a loyal friend to Orestes that he accompanied him throughout many horrible adventures.

Penthesilea was the leader of the Amazons, speared to death by Achilles at Troy, a scene often depicted in art.

The references to Ulysses concern his role in tricking Philoctetes into giving up his magic bow. Ovid makes the bow Cupid’s instead. Althaea destroyed her son Meleager by burning a piece of wood which possessed the charm of keeping him alive.

The Clashing Rocks crushed every ship that passed through them except the Argo.

Scylla and Charybdis were two monsters (a monster on a rock and a whirlpool) between which ships had to sail.

Presumably if Phaedra had not been rich enough to marry Theseus, she would not have fallen under the curse of loving his son Hippolytus.

Many of Ulysses’ men were almost lost to the pleasures of the addictive lotus on the Lybian coast.

Anaphrodisiacs are anti-aphrodisiacs.

What is your opinion of Ovid’s advice?

More study guides for Love in the Arts:

Version of July 21, 1997

How to Read a Poem

Few students read much poetry these days, and may be uncertain about how to approach writings in verse. Here are some simple tips for beginners.

1) Almost all poets want to be understood, and many poems are quite simple to understand. Don’t assume that just because some writing has a ragged right-hand margin it’s automatically going to be baffling.

2) Try reading the poem out loud. It’s amazing how often this simple process makes clear what your eye can’t sort out on the page.

3) Read carefully. Read each poem more than once. Look up words you don’t know. Poetry is typically more dense than prose, and every word is potentially important. Don’t skim. Strategies of speed reading which work with prose will not work with poetry. If there is a section in the poem you don’t understand at first, it’s very likely to be crucial to understanding the poem’s meaning. Keep working at it, using dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other reference sources until you understand all parts of the poem. Don’t assume that feelings or associations that emerge hazily from a first reading will turn out to be correct.

4) Start by figuring out the literal meaning of the poem first, before you leap into figuring out the metaphorical language, if any. Try translating what the poem says into simple prose first to make sure you understand it at a very basic level. If you can’t explain what the poem is saying literally in prose you probably haven’t understood it yet. More advanced analysis of the poem’s language comes later.

5) Be aware of genre: types of poetry. If the book or teacher tells you you’re reading a carpe diem poem you need to know not only that this is a Latin phrase meaning “seize the day” but that 99% of all carpe diem poems are addressed by horny men speaking to young women, trying to pressure them into having sex.

6) Beware of religious interpretations. A poem by Donne, Crashaw, or Milton may be Christian, but not every poem using religious language is religious. A “Lord” can be a king, a lover, or a husband, and does not necessarily refer to God. Unless you know for sure that the poem is religious, don’t assume it is.

7) Be ready to change your mind about the meaning of a poem. Just because experts sometimes differ in their interpretations of poem you cannot assume that all opinions are equal. A valid opinion needs to be backed up by evidence. If it turns out that a word has an important meaning other than the one you know about, be ready to learn that. Even though you may have a really strong feeling about a poem, it’s evidence that counts in literary analysis, not just subjective feelings. A valid interpretation must take into account all parts of a poem.

8) Read lots of poetry. The first poem you read comparing a woman to a rosebud may not mean much to you until you realize that this is a very old tradition involving thousands of poets, almost all of whom are stressing that a young woman should make love before she gets too old and “wilts” like an overblown rose. Poets allude to and build on other poets all the time. You need to listen in on their conversation for a while before you pick up the patterns.

9) Read any notes or introductory matter that accompany the poem. If you don’t read my notes to Virgil’s Ecologue II, you may embarrass yourself by discussing the poem as if it were about a man addressing a woman because you won’t know that “Alexis” was strictly a man’s name in the classical era. It’s a homosexual love poem.

10) After you’ve figured the poem out, go back and read it aloud again. Now you should be able to enjoy it. Poems aren’t designed primarily to be studied, but to be read and enjoyed. Pleasures worth working at in life include playing chess, appreciating fine wines, and reading poetry. Don’t expect it to “come naturally.” Give it a chance.

Paul Brians
August 31, 2005

Diane Ackerman: A Natural History of Love

Despite its title, Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of Love is not a systematic history of the subject, but a series of loosely-linked essays examining love from many different angles, many of them literary. It is the latter on which we will concentrate, but the rest of the book makes very good reading as well.

Ackerman is a poet and independent scholar rather than a specialist researcher; and her scholarship is not always impeccably up to date, but she is generally trustworthy and always stimulating.

Note: the pages below are treated in order of the assignments for this class rather than strictly chronologically. They cover somewhat less than half of the book.

pp. xxvi-xxiii

Identify a statement she makes about love that you find particularly insightful or which you agree with and explain why. Identify a statement about love which you find strange or surprising and explain why. What is it that she says remains the same about love throughout history? What changes? You may be surprised to find after her opening statements here how extremely variable she finds love to be in the following chapters. What do you think of her claim that “The way we love in the twentieth century is as much an accumulation of past sentiments as a response to modern life”?

pp. 1-17


What is the most interesting (to you) thing she says about Cleopatra? What was special about Egyptian attitudes toward women? Ackerman assumes here that King Solomon wrote the Song of Songs commonly attributed to him; but many modern scholars believe it was written much later than his time and associated with him because of its subject matter. Egyptian women are often depicted hunting birds and fishing with their husbands. What is the reason the woman in the second poem has returned home without any birds? Do you agree with her that we tend to idealize all the qualities of beautiful people? What does she argue is the reason that we tend to use nature images in love poetry? The word “mnemonic” means “having to do with memory;” it is not clear to me what she means by it in the phrase “Love is often depicted as a state of mnemonic possession” except that she is probably punning on “demonic possession.” Perhaps she means “possessed by a memory.” Have you ever encountered the concept of love as a disease before? Does it make sense to you? In what way does she say that being in love and being a child are similar? What genetic reason does she give for the incest taboo? When she says that “the Bible often refers to (and condones) incestuous marriages,” she is probably thinking of relationships like that of Abraham and Sarah (half-siblings, see Genesis 20); but the Hebrew scriptures are generally quite hostile to incest. From what bit of evidence does she deduce that homosexual love existed among the Egyptians?

pp. 17-39


In what way does she say Athens in the fifth century BCE was like America in the sixties? In what ways were women restricted in ancient Greece? Why did these restrictions lead to homosexual behavior among men? What qualities set courtesans apart from ordinary Athenian women? What moral qualities did some Greeks ascribe to homosexual love? What was the Greek attitude toward the relationship between virtue and beauty? In what way did Greek attitudes differ from the modern emphasis on the primacy of the nuclear family as the basis of society? What was the relationship between love and marriage? The story of Orpheus and Euridyce has been told in many works of art, literature, and music. It was a particularly popular subject for early operas because Orpheus was made into a sort of god of music. Which do you find the most interesting of her speculations as to why Orpheus turned back?


Describe Roman attitudes toward women. The story of Dido and Aeneas has been depicted in many works of art and in the famous opera by Hector Berlioz, Les Troyens. This story well reflects Roman values because it depicts the triumph of duty (and imperial conquest) over love; but Ackerman tells the story from Dido’s view, which somewhat obscures this point. Which wedding customs do we inherit from the ancient Romans? The mistaken notion that the Romans engaged in constant orgies is a result of the scandal-mongering of historians like Tacitus and Suetonius, who hated the imperial family and attributed to them all manner of outrageous behavior. The point to remember is that these scandalous stories were repeated because they were considered scandalous: regular Romans did not approve of such goings-on, and were in fact generally more “Victorian” in their morals than modern Americans.

pp. 39-43

Neither of the explanations Ackerman gives for the low birth rate among noble Romans is supported by current scientific research. In fact, it is a well-known fact that when people become well off financially they tend to have fewer children. What was Augustus’ attitude toward marriage? What do you think of Ackerman’s attitude toward Ovid? Do you agree with it or disagree? Explain.

pp. 95-99

What is the meaning of Aristophanes’ fable? How do religious supplicants use erotic imagery?

pp. 314-322

Choose one or two of the uses of erotic imagery by religious mystics discussed here and react to it. In what ways are nuns the “brides of Christ?” What does Ackerman mean by saying that she is agnostic but deeply religious? In what ways does she compare the love of God to human love?

pp. 43-60

In what ways have women been associated with cleanliness? What was the Church attitude toward tournaments? How did the Crusades affect French noblewomen? What was the Medieval Christian attitude toward sex in marriage? What ideas about love did Medieval readers take from Greek and Roman authors? In what ways is Ibn Hazm’s attitude toward love similar to that of Medieval Christian thinkers? Those who idealize the troubadours are often surprised at the behavior and writing of the first of them, Guillaume IX (here called “William”). In fact the troubadours were far more earthy and sexual than they are often depicted. What was the “avant-garde and dangerous idea” they advanced? What were the principal characteristics of love in their view? Strictly speaking, “troubadours” were always Provençal-speaking poets from southern France. Their northern equivalents, coming somewhat later, were called “trouvères.” Both words mean “finder” or “creator.” The notion that courtly love affairs were not consummated is widely held, but false. One has only to read the prose tales of such love affairs rather than the poetry–which is better known–to find abundant sex (see, for instances, the lays of Marie de France. Poets wrote about their frustration as a way of persuading women to make love with them, but when they succeeded they tried to be discreet. The result is that we have a lot of poetry about love-longing, but not much about fulfillment. Ackerman is following an old-fashioned, nineteenth-century view of courtly love of as perpetually suspended in the non-physical realm. Otherwise she does a good job of describing the stages through which a courtly love affair was expected to pass. How are they similar to or different from the stages we expect a love affair to pass through today? What does it mean to say that “Virtue became the European harem?” When Ackerman says that jealousy was considered noble among lovers she is exaggerating somewhat. Most Medieval guides warn against jealousy among both husbands and lovers, though lovers often express their jealousy in their poems. How does she say that the notion of intimacy between lovers arose? What do you think of her claim that love has been the main subject of writers since the eleventh century? What do you find appealing about Medieval attitudes toward love?

pp. 105-112

The story of Tristan and Isolde was even more popular in the Middle Ages than the very similar story of Lancelot and Guinevere, which is better known today. The finest Medieval version is the Tristan of Gottfried von Strassburg. In what ways does this story seem different from the patterns described earlier as characterizing “courtly love?” The word “passion” is actually derived from a Latin root meaning “suffering” (as in “the passion of Christ”). What do you think of the statement that “three years is about as long as ardent but unthwarted love can last?” In what ways does she argue passion is a kind of longing for death? Do you agree? Why do you think people enjoy reading about unhappy lovers?

pp. 66-75

What were the conflicting attitudes toward women during the Renaissance? In what way did earlier centuries depict women in the way that we have tended to depict men in modern times? Love matches became popular in fiction and drama in Shakespeare’s time, but more as an escapist fantasy than as an attainable ideal. Romeo and Juliet is in part a lesson on the dangers of impulsive young love–undoubtedly exciting but potentially deadly. Even in the next couple of centuries, when true love triumphed over parental inflexibility, it usually did so through compromise, with the beloved turning out to be just the sort of person the parent wanted for an in-law all along. It is worth noting that although fourteen- and fifteen-year-old girls did marry in Elizabethan England, the actual average age of marriage was much older. What makes Shakespeare’s lovers different from Medieval ones? What are some of the different sorts of love depicted in Romeo and Juliet?What characteristics were admired in courtly women during the Renaissance?

pp. 75-82

We know about Casanova’s adventures because he wrote about them in great detail in his memoirs, The History of My Life. Ackerman neglects to mention that whereas Casanova was a very real person, Don Juan is fictional. Does the account of Benjamin Franklin make you feel differently about him? How?

pp. 177-196

What qualities make human lovemaking different from animal mating? Do you recognize her description of flirting? Is it familiar behavior? Ackerman’s examples of evolution among various races to match their climates have been challenged in recent years by some biologists; she notes herself a number of exceptions to the seemingly obvious linkage which people have traditionally made. What survival advantages does “cuteness” confer? What reasons does she give for women cutting their hair short? What do you think of her arguments?

pp. 255-256

What sorts of things does she find erotic? Can you think of other examples in art you have seen?

pp. 82-91

What change in the late eighteenth century caused the shift toward placing a value on the individual? What quality in the Enlightenment was the Romantic movement reacting against? Beethoven did not write all of his quartets while deaf–only the final ones. There is a recent–very bad–movie about Beethoven’s love life entitled Immortal Beloved. It departs radically from what we know about his real life. In what ways did the nineteenth-century Romantics revert to Medieval patterns? What was distinctive about the new attitudes toward love? What were the effects of Victorian ideals on sexual behavior? What events and movements have caused our time to be so radically different from the Victorian Age?

More study guides for Love in the Arts:

Created by Paul Brians August 29, 1997.

Love Poems by Modern Women

Source: Wendy Mulford, ed.: Love Poems by Women. New York: Fawcett, 1991.

There are many passages in these poems that I don’t claim to understand completely; but try to discern the feelings and patterns they contain even if you can’t explain every line. The best way to appreciate most poetry is to read it aloud. Try it. Be sure to read the biographical notes on the poets that begin on p. 245.

Sonja Akesson: From “What Does Your Color Red Look Like?” p. 9, notes on p. 245.

The poet begins by proclaiming that there many meanings to the word “love;” but instead of enumerating them, she asks whether what she feels now is love at all. Why do you think she does this? What similarities are there among the images used in the lines from “There is a flush . . .” to “in the dry heat”? What seems to be the main theme of this poem? “Black crepe” is a kind of cloth which was traditionally used to symbolize mourning. The description at the end of the poem sounds rather repulsive. Can you see any ambiguity in the attitude of the poet toward “you”?

Nuala Ni Dhomnaill: “Labysheedy,” p. 19, notes on p. 250.

The title is a place name in Ireland. The Shannon in an Irish river. The repetition of the first verse as a “refrain” at the end of the poem suggests a song. What time of day is being described? Why are the trees described as they are? How is the image repeated later? What image is taken directly from the Song of Songs? Of which sex is the “you” in this poem? How can you tell? The beloved must have very long hair if it flows over the “ravine” between her breasts and then over the lower “ravine” between her legs. Fuchsias are very common in Ireland, growing as hedges along many highways.

Marina Tsvetaeva: “You Loved Me,” p. 31, notes on p. 267.

How does the title become more clearly defined as you read the poem? Why is the end of this love particularly shocking to the poet?

Rita Dove: “Adolescence 1,” p. 32, notes on p. 251.

African-American writer Rita Dove was Poet-Laureate of the United States 1993-1995. What sort of weather could be described as “water-heavy”? What is the situation being described? What does it mean to say that “Linda’s face grew wise?” What color are pecans? Is she referring to the nut, or to its shell? What images of light, feathery touching can you find in the poem? What images of light are in the poem, and how do they relate to each other?

Jelena Lengold: “Passion,” p. 53, notes on p. 257.

A “lift” is an elevator. What is the speaker learning about her lover? What is the nature of her relationship to him? What causes the lover’s “shudder,” do you think? What does it tell us about him? Why does she identify with the cat at the end of the poem? What qualities might they have in common?

Joy Harjo: “Nine Below,” p. 67, notes on p. 254.

The Bering Sea separated the Cold War foes the U.S. and U.S.S.R., between Alaska and Siberia. Downed fliers are often searched for in the Arctic using both planes and trained sled dogs. Why does the poet use these metaphors in describing her love? What is she trying to say about her relationship? Can you translate these images into feelings? The “blue saxophone” is probably not literally blue, but a sax used in playing bluesy jazz. “The shimmering houses of the gods” are probably the northern lights.

Marina Tsvetaeva: From “Poem of the End,” p. 71, notes on p. 267.

In this poem a man tries to end a relationship with a minimum of communication which arouses powerful emotions in the poet. Which images reflect this theme? What does the first stanza mean? The eagle image occurs both at the beginning and end of the poem. What traditional associations are there with eagles? How does the poet stress the intimate, profound nature of love? To what sort of love does she contrast their love? Is this a dialogue? Who is doing most of the speaking? To what departure does the conclusion point?

Marilyn Hacker: “Languedocienne,” p. 129, notes on p. 263.

Languedoc is an old name for Provence, an area of southern France in which the violent winds are reputed to drive people mad. A “Languedocienne” could be a poem written in the style of Languedoc (the home of the troubadours) or a woman who lives in Languedoc, or both. What does the weather imagery suggest about the state of the poet’s mind as she anticipates meting her beloved? What do you think the images of longing for water suggest? She imagines going to collect her beloved at a nearby train station and making her way back on the bus past the houses closed up for the traditional afternoon siesta. How does this make their meeting more intimate?

Rita Dove: “This Life,” p. 131.

What does this poem have to say about the disillusionment with love that may come with maturity? “That one” upstairs may be a husband or partner who perhaps told her the same intimate words that the person addressed as “you” has just uttered. She longed for “you” without really knowing it, but the image she uses for this longing implies permanent separation, unfulfilled longing. How does the poet feel about her current relationship?

Solveig von Schoultz: “The Rain,” p. 144, notes on p. 267.

What images of the extinction of light are there in this poem? What have they to do with love? What similarities do “carelessly,” “blindly,” “oblivion,” and “darkness” have? What does it mean that darkness, rather than light, streams out of someone?

Adrienne Rich: ” From Twenty-One Love Poems, III;” pp. 155-156.

What makes this poem about love between older people different from a poem about young love? What do the first two lines mean? How does she contrast her feelings now with what she felt at twenty? Note that she is not saying that young love is better. What is better about love that happens late in life, according to the poet?

Ntozake Shange: “Get It & Feel Good,” pp. 166, notes on p. 264.

This poem is written in a style which was popular in the 80s, designed to capture the feeling of informal, colloquial speech. It has a light, dancing rhythm which works best when read aloud, and is intended for oral performance. It is crucial while reading this poem to keep in mind that the poet has probably had many unhappy encounters with men, so she is trying to cheer herself up by listing some of the benefits one can still salvage from this frustrating business of love, even in hard times. Instead of agonizing over the lack of a perfect love, she seems to be saying, try to celebrate the little pleasures that it can still offer. The tone is humorous, impudent, ironic. What aspects of this poem do you think are positive? Which negative?

Margaret Atwood: “Eventual Proteus,” p. 168, notes on p. 246

Proteus was a god who could transform himself into many different shapes. The only way to subdue him was to cling on tightly when he went through all his metamorphoses until he settled down into his true shape. How does this ancient myth reflect the theme of this poem? This is one of the bitterest poems in this collection. In what ways has this relationship changed? How has the image of the man changed in the poet’s eyes? How does she feel about herself? She no longer believes in the early illusions she associated with him, the way he presented himself, so the early language in which he presented himself is no longer credible. Why is their lovemaking now a failure?

Audre Lorde: “Sisters in Arms,” pp. 185-187, p. 258.

Audre Lorde is a highly political black lesbian poet who here expresses her solidarity with a South African lover in a poem which is more about the struggle against apartheid (correctly pronounced “apart-hate,” rather than the common but erroneous “apart-hide “: the word is Afrikaans, not German). What are the various sorts of things which the poet wishes she could do for her grieving lover? Her daughter was murdered by the police while the poet was away, and this sense of tragedy, rage, and frustration is mingled with her love. The limpet mine is a bomb used to cause a terrorist explosion, and the calabash is a gourd which in traditional African belief can be used to enclose the sole of a departed loved one. After the list of things she could not do, what does she say she was able to do? Note that after the blank line, the scene shifts to the U.S. at a later date. The incident that has caused the New York Times “finally” to mention South Africa is the brutal 1984 shooting down in Sebokeng of a group of people running from police and troops, including the six-year-old Thabo Sibeko. What sort of victims does this poem especially concentrate on? Sulfur is used in the manufacture of gunpowder. How does the stanza at the bottom of p. 186 express the absence of the beloved? In what way is the final stanza affirmative or hopeful?

Alice Walker: “Did This Happen to Your Mother? Did Your Sister Throw Up a Lot?” p. 192, notes p. 268.

How does Walker try to create a sense of commonality among women in her musings on love? What does she have to say about the relationship between needs and love? How is the lovesickness in this poem different from Medieval lovesickness? What is a “conservationist” in this context? Is the last line despairing or hopeful, do you think?

Solveig von Schoultz: “The Lover,” p. 216.

Describe the emotions that are expressed in this poem. What is going on?

Marina Tsvetaeva: “Where Does this TendernessCome from?” p. 223.

Here an experienced woman is astonished to find herself so moved by a new lover she barely knows. What causes her astonishment?

Nina Cassian: “Prayer,” p. 223, notes on p. 248

This poem evokes old myths of animal lovers or gods who mate with mortal women. The poet “prays” to perhaps nonexistent pagan gods–potential lovers, in hopes of being transformed by their love. What emotions does the poem express?

Jayne Cortez: “Rose Solitude,” p. 234, notes on p. 249.

This love poem–or eulogy–to the memory of the great composer and band leader Duke Ellington alludes to the titles of a number of his compositions, including “Solitude,” “Satin Doll,” “Caravan,” and “Cotton Tail.” Edward Kennedy Ellington was famously a lover of women, but it his music which is the object of adoration here. Musk is an important ingredient in many perfumes, taken from the mink. “Satchmo” was the nickname of the great jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Nat (King) Cole (father of Natalie) was a major jazz pianist before he became even more famous as a singer and had the first network television show hosted by a black performer. Shango is a West African god of storms and power often evoked in the Caribbean and Brazil by black cults. How is the permanence of art expressed in this poem?

More study guides for Love in the Arts:

Last revised November 14, 2005.

Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story

Music: Leonard Bernstein
Book: Arthur Laurents
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Choreography: Jerome Robbins

Original Cast (1957)
Maria: Carol Lawrence
Tony: Larry Kert
Anita: Chita Rivera
Bernardo: Ken LeRoy
Riff: Mickey Calin
Film Cast (United Artists, 1961)
Maria: Natalie Wood (songs dubbed by Marni Nixon)
Richard Beymer (songs dubbed by Jim Bryant)
Anita: Rita Moreno (some songs dubbed by Betty Wand & Marni Nixon)
Bernardo: George Chakiris
Riff: Russ Tamblyn

Tony Mardente, who played A-rab on the stage, was Action in the film.

Of all the contributions of American culture to the arts, the Broadway musical is one of the most significant. Its predecessor, the European operetta (a play with spoken dialogue but abundant singing in operatic style), typically featured exotic settings, aristocratic characters, and wildly improbable plots. Although the musical’s roots were in England, it quickly evolved in the hands of such geniuses as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart and the incomparable George and Ira Gershwin into a distinctively American form featuring popular songs, many of which were to become “standards,” still widely performed and loved today.

Leonard Bernstein took the musical to new heights of seriousness in his 1957 production, West Side Story, based loosely on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Its true subject was the growing menace of gang warfare (or “juvenile delinquency” as it was known then) in the context of racial tensions created by clashes between whites and Puerto Rican immigrants. Consciousness of racism was very much on the rise in the U.S. of the late fifties; and Bernstein, a life-long liberal, wanted to portray the issue in an uncompromising fashion.

The subject is treated in a fairly complex fashion. Note especially “I Want to Live in America,” which expresses the ambiguous feelings of the immigrants about their homeland while forthrightly condemning American white racism. Some people feel this number reinforces stereotypes about Latinos, and the musical has been the target of protests in some areas on that grounds.

Note that the Jets display their ignorance and/or hostility by consistently mispronouncing “Puerto Rico” as “Porto Rico.” The Sharks always pronounce it properly.

This is also an extraordinarily sophisticated musical work. Notice the complex layering in the reprise of “Tonight” with each individual or group voicing its own anticipations for the evening.

Originally the script was to have dealt with a Christian/Jewish romance (called “East Side Story”), but Bernstein decided to choose a more immediately relevant theme. Ironically, neither Broadway nor Hollywood was able to rise above its own institutionalized racism to cast a Latina actress as Maria.

The gangs of that time were much less well armed than today’s, and the exigencies of stage and film production in the fifties forced the libretto to use somewhat censored language (somewhat dated now, but fairly hip then), so that the modern viewer may be tempted to look at this story of gang warfare as somewhat innocent and naive. But at a deeper level, the hatreds and frustrations articulated here are authentic reflections of an ongoing American tragedy.

West Side Story features classic dances by Jerome Robbins, especially in the hyper-athletic masculine style pioneered by choreographer Agnes de Mille in Rodeo and Oklahoma , and several extraordinarily beautiful songs, many of which have become classics. Bernstein, at this time the most famous conductor in the world, leading the New York Philharmonic, and exponent of a wide range of classical and popular music, had the skills to write music considerably more complex that contained in most musicals.

The musical style is based on hard-hitting big band jazz and Latin-beat music like the mambo. Popular dance music had not settled exclusively on rock and roll yet when this work was being written.

If a musical is not an opera, neither is it a play. It is necessary to accept the fact that characters are constantly bursting into either song or dance. It is in these songs and dances that the very essence of the musical exists.

A few definitions:

JD’s are juvenile delinquents
DT’s are delirium tremens, symptoms of extreme alcoholism
“Tea” is marijuana.
“Social Disease” is a polite term for a sexually transmitted disease.
A “zip gun” was a home-made device for shooting projectiles, powered by strong rubber bands. It could be lethal under the right conditions. Actual guns were much harder to get hold of in the fifties than they became later.

Your assignment:

Discuss some aspect of this production, writing at least 50 words. Be sure to specify scenes and characters, using this study guide.

How does the musical reflect the same values as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? In what ways is it different?

Describe the dancing in this production. How is the choreography different from that you saw in the Prokofiev ballet? How about the vocal technique? What makes it different from the techniques used in La Traviata? How are gestures, camera angles, and lighting used to convey ideas and feelings? What kinds of melodies are used? How does the music change to convey different emotions? Discuss how Bernstein sometimes layers one kind of music on another, or creates abrupt contrasts.

What aspects of the action seem to relate specifically to gangs in the 50s and which seem relevant to today gang violence and racism?

When you consider the ending of the musical, keep the following in mind. The 1950s marked a new phenomenon: a youth culture largely independent of adult influence. In Shakespeare’s day the Prince could stand for the sanctioned authority of the state (in his case, Queen Elizabeth, who detested dueling). The end of the play resolves the conflict by reimposing traditional authority. But Sondheim, Bernstein, and the rest identified more with the developing youth culture in its rebellion against adult society. Notice how parents are kept offstage, with only one good but powerless adult–Doc–anywhere to be seen. The recreation center leader is a clueless idiot and the cops are corrupt racist thugs. In the world of West Side Story hope for the future can reside only in the next generation. It can’t end like Shakespeare’s play because its creators don’t share his values. The conclusion is meant to place responsibility for ending the conflict squarely in the laps of its young viewers.

Comment on these and other matters, then respond to what someone else has said, going beyond merely agreeing or disagreeing–try to engage them in conversation by addressing their ideas with ideas of your own.

Please note that this production, though it is being shown to you from a DVD, is not a “video.” Refer to it as a “film” or “movie.”

Lots more information at the West Side Story Web Site.

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Last revised November 28, 2005.

Giuseppi Verdi (1813 1901): La Traviata

Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave

Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, 1982

Violetta Valéry (a courtesan, dying of tuberculosis): Teresa Stratas

Alfredo Germont (young poet in love with Violetta): Placido Domingo

Giorgio Germont (Alfredo’s father): Cornell MacNeill

When Agenor, son of the Duc de Guiche, fell in love with a notorious if charming and brilliant courtesan named Marie Duplessis, his father was not amused. He feared that his naive son would ruin his reputation and his fortune by becoming involved with such a woman, and he forced the young man to break off the relationship.

Alexandre Dumas fils, son of the author of The Count of Monte Cristo, also had an affair with Marie in which she behaved rather badly, but he seems to have retained great affection for her even after breaking up with her.

Not much later, she died (at the age of 23) of tuberculosis, then called “consumption,” the most commonly deadly disease in the 19th century. Dumas then avenged the younger generation by blending his own story with Agenor’s by creating a novel, then a play, in which an idealized courtesan named Marguerite Gautier who loves camelias proves to be more loving and generous than the hero’s father. Both works became hugely popular under the title La Dame aux camélias (or in English, Camille).

The story is a quintessential romantic attack on conventional bourgeois morality, arguing that a good heart is more important than propriety, that the social distinctions which split the beau monde(high society) from the demimonde (the world of illicit sex) are cruel and hypocritical, and that true love must triumph over all. That the story ends tragically is today often smugly said to indicate that the 19th-century readers could celebrate sexual freedom only when they doomed those who exercised it. But this is unfair. Dumas is expressing the romantic notion that the highest virtue in a human being is a good heart. If some people are too good for this world, that is the world’s loss.

To understand the story, it is important to keep certain facts in mind. In mid-19th-century France, almost as much as in England, sexual hypocrisy was widespread. Prostitution and gambling were extremely popular and widespread even as they were being publicly condemned on every hand. Men were expected to have mistresses whom they supported financially; but they were expected to conceal that fact, and they were expected not to fall in love with them. Such courtesans were not classed with common prostitutes, but there should be no illusion about their motivation for participating in these affairs: they were in it for the cash and gifts, and were faithful to their lovers only so long as it suited them. (It should be obvious, however, why an opera about a good-hearted courtesan would be appropriate in a film like Pretty Woman (1990), where Julia Roberts is enchanted by Violetta’s story).

Any woman who slept with a man before marriage was thought to be “ruined” (i. e., rendered unfit to be wed), and should be shunned as a social leper. For many such women, some form of prostitution was the only means of survival. Respectable women feared and detested the courtesans, and would not permit them to mix in “polite society,” as it was then called. Further, they were presumed to be predatory temptresses, bent on extracting their wealth from guileless young men, then abandoning them. The very most respectable families would not even want to be associated with another family in which one of the members was entangled with such a creature. It is this stereotype that Dumas set himself to break. It is a commentary on the complexity of moral attitudes during the time that the result was wildly popular.

In 1853, one year after Dumas dramatized his work, the Italian Giuseppi Verdi turned the story into one of the most popular operas ever written: La Traviata (“The Wayward Woman”), retaining the Parisian setting but changing the heroine’s name to an Italian one: Violetta. The Italians were considerably more conservative in sexual matters than the French, and Verdi removed most of the seamier scenes from the original play and made his Violetta an almost angelic creature whose self-contempt and fear of risking love is almost incomprehensible unless one knows what everyone then knew: that she was a courtesan, loved only for her body and her high spirits, destined to die young and alone. This production hints at the shallowness of the affection her friends have for when, at the end of the first scene, one of her female guests placidly steals a valuable snuffbox off the mantle as she departs.

In Franco Zeffirelli’s striking production of the opera, we scan across Paris to the lavishly decorated apartment of Violetta, and, as the music from the prelude to Act V is “previewed” (there is no overture) we see her as she will appear in the last scene, abandoned, destitute, dying, her belongings being carted off to pay her bills. One of the young men who has come to help transport the goods is entranced by her portrait, and then catches of glimpse of her. Violetta then seems to see herself as she was in happier days; and as we travel swiftly back in time, the first scene begins. Although this unusual opening is not present in the original opera, it reflects the opening of Dumas’ novel, which depicts a dreary auction of the impoverished Marguerite’s belongings.

In the first act, Alfredo tries to persuade Violetta to abandon her current lover, an older baron. To love this young man who has no money of his own (though his father is rich) would not only impoverish her, but open her up to disappointment. So long as she is the mistress of men like the baron, her heart remains untouched; but if she allows herself to believe in true love, she fears disappointment.

In the second act, they have moved to the country; but Alfredo does not understand that this expensive way of life is being paid for by Violetta. His father comes to persuade her to give him up. Although he learns that, contrary to his expectations, she is not being supported by Alfredo, it is even more unacceptable to him (and polite society in general) to see a respectable young man being supported by the income of a “fallen woman.”

The third act features an elaborate ballet in which guests dressed as Spanish gypsies perform a dance combining the themes of passion, money, and death which run through Traviata. In order not to interfere with the viewing of the brilliant visual spectacle of this ballet, subtitles are omitted during this section, but you will want to know what is being sung, so a loose translation is offered here:

We are matadors from Madrid,
Heroes of the bull-ring.
We have come to enjoy the celebration
That Paris makes over the fattend ox.
There a story we can tell, if you’ll listen,
which will tell how we can love!

There’s a handsome, bold
Matador from Biscay
Strong of arm, and proud;
He is the lord of the arena.
He fell madly in love
With a young woman from Andalucia;
But the disdainful beauty
Spoke to her admirer thus:

“I want to see you kill
Five bulls in a single day;
And, if you succeed, when you return
I will give you my hand and heart.”

“Yes,” he said to her; and the matador
Stepped into the ring,
And became the conqueror of five bulls
which he stretched out in the arena.

The other guests then sing:

Bravo, bravo, matador,
You have shows yourself to be heroic
And in this way have proved
your love to the young woman!

The bullfighters reply:

Then, he returned, through the applause,
To the beauty he loved
And embraced his much-desired prize
In his loving arms.

Other guests:

This is how matadors
Prove themselves conquerors of women.


But we have softer hearts,
It’s enough for us to have fun and games.


Yes, happy friends, let us first
Try our luck at games of chance;
Let us open the contest
To the bold gambler.

(Translation by Paul Brians)

In this act, her sacrifice is completely misunderstood by Alfredo, which is partly as she wished it; but he behaves ignobly in deliberately treating her as a whore before a large assembly, provoking the Baron to challenge him to a duel. Note that Alfredo had come to the party bent on challenging the Baron, but in the end it is the Baron who defends Violetta by challenging the young man by ritually slapping him with his glove.

In the last scene, Alfredo has gone on a long voyage to forget her; but his father, realizing the true nobility of Violetta, has written to him to tell him the truth. She is hanging on, hour by hour, hoping to be reconciled with him before she dies.

By simplifying the emotions, purifying the heroine and pouring into this opera many of his most achingly beautiful melodies, Verdi created one of the masterpieces of romantic opera. Listen closely to the aria in the second act in which Alfredo sings of his love reaching across the universe. The melody recurs from time to time as Violetta is thinking of his love for her, including briefly just before the end. Contemporary critics usually scorn what they call sentimentality; but the romantics meant to soften the heart and render the audience more humane, tolerant, and loving by telling this kind of story. Thanks to Verdi’s genius, for audiences willing to set aside their sophisticated skepticism, it can still work.

A Note on Watching Opera

Opera is drama set to music, and both are important. The melodies of arias (solos), the complex interweaving of contrasting melodies in duets and trios, and the rousing harmonies of choruses are the very heart and soul of opera. Emotional raptures which might seem exaggerated in the theater are brought to life by music. It is crucial not to get so wrapped up in following the plot that you don’t pay attention to the music. This is, above all, one of the most glorious musical compositions produced in the Romantic era, filled with memorable melodies, duets, and choruses.

One of Verdi’s favorite devices is to have one or more singers perform a throbbing rhythmic pattern while another sings a long, soaring melodic line over the top. Listen for this effect in the duet between Violetta and Alfredo’s father at her place in the country, and again in the duet between Alfredo and Violetta when he returns at the end of the opera.

If you have never seen an opera before, it may take some time to get used to hearing characters sing their lines instead of speaking them. There can be a certain comic quality to some of the chorus’ unison exclamations, for instance; but such artificialities are required by the music; and experienced opera-goers take them for granted.

When you begin writing about the opera, please do not use the word “music” to mean the orchestral accompaniment as contrasted with the “singing.” Singing is music, the main form of music in an opera. If you feel that the “singing” gets in the way of the “music” then you aren’t really experiencing what opera is.

Operas are usually sung in the language in which they were originally written; hence you will hear these Parisians conversing in perfect Italian. The reason for not performing the opera in translation is that the musical values of certain syllables are not preserved when one changes languages. Instead, to assist those of you who are not fluent in Italian, the filmmaker has provided subtitles (supertitles are used in most modern American opera productions for the same reason). If you are not used to it, this may be a bit distracting at first, but without them you would get much less of the story. After a while reading the titles becomes automatic. Because they appear at the very bottom of the screen, it is important to sit close enough to read them clearly and to have a clear view of them, without some other student’s shoulder cutting them off. Choose your seat carefully. If you are watching the opera on DVD in private, be sure to use the menu to turn on the subtitles before you begin watching.

When the chorus or other singers begin to repeat the same lyrics over and over, the subtitles cease in order to let you concentrate on the music. During the ballet, much of the time there are no subtitles, to let you concentrate on the spectacle without distraction (see lyrics above); but the rest of the time you can be assured that if there are no titles on the screen, the words being sung are repetitions of phrases which have already been translated for you.

Important note: If the subtitles do not appear when the singers first start singing, go back to the main menu and choose English subtitles.

More study guides for Love in the Arts:

First mounted June 17, 1995.

Last revised March 5, 2007

Madame de Lafayette: The Princesse de Clèves

Based on the translation by Robin Buss, for Penguin Classics

The Princesse de Clèves was an innovative novel in at least two ways. It can claim to be the first historical novel in that its author (with some help) made a serious attempt to research the French court of the preceding century and weave historical events into her tale’s tapestry. If the emotions and attitudes are more characteristic of the seventeenth century than the sixteenth, that is a common failing of historical novels in all ages. More serious perhaps is the way in which the historical passages remain largely undigested clumps of information scattered throughout her narrative, not really blended into it. She uses the past largely as an excuse for examining her own time. Its other claim to priority is perhaps more important: as the first roman d’analyse (novel of analysis), dissecting emotions and attitudes in a highly intelligent and skillful way. This sort of writing was to become a hallmark of French fiction until it was swept away by the tide of Romanticism which preferred to revel in emotions rather than analyzing them.

But emotions are the not primary objects of de Lafayette’s analysis: morals are. This is a book about ethical issues which avoids easy judgmental simplifications which might sort behavior neatly into sin and virtue and instead ponders at length the moral dilemmas which even the best-intentioned person can fall into. Especially interesting for us is the way in which the emerging ideal of romantic marriage is treated in the novel. Although Renaissance comedies often enough concluded romances with marriage, that age was far more prone to find entertainment in adultery and be very cynical about happiness in marriage. Arranged matches were still the rule among well-to-do people, and love was thought to be an agreeable but uncommon result of marriage. Keep in mind as well as you read the novel that divorce was impossible and annulments very rare at this time.

The 17th century marked a crucial turning point in European attitudes toward love. The exalted language of the 12th-century troubadours which had turned into pallid clichés and cynical jokes by the 16th century began to be applied seriously to the every-day romances of ordinary men and women. Many people began to feel that it might not be a bad thing if one were able to love one’s spouse romantically, rather than merely companionably. Numerous stories and plays were written in which the demands of young love conflict with those of overbearing parents. Whereas Romeo and Juliet could defy their parents only by wedding in secret and had to pay for their rashness with their lives, by this time it is common–indeed, routine–for the defiant young lovers to get their way by the end of the tale. But the challenge to established tradition was muted and indirect. The parents are often depicted as exceedingly foolish people who are made to come to their senses. They do not necessarily represent the ordinary run of parents. One of the most common plots involves parental rejection of the intended on the grounds that he/she is of too low a social station. This conflict is invariably resolved by a last-minute revelation that the two lovers are indeed of the same social class, and perfectly fitted for each other. Thus 17th-century readers could fantasize about triumphing over the unhappiness often imposed by arranged marriages without fundamentally challenging the social system.

Madame de Lafayette, a notorious social-climber herself, no more challenges the social structure of her time than any other writer, at least overtly. But her work poses a direct challenge to the mores of the court that foreshadows the views of the rising bourgeoisie far more than those of the aristocracy she so admired. Her ideal marriage involves partners truly in love with each other, confiding in each other, acting as each other’s best friends and as lovers. If such a marriage seems impossible in the novel, that is because the idea was relatively novel. Not only did the heroine’s openness with her husband shock the court in the novel, contemporary readers had the identical reaction in the author’s own time. In a social milieu where adulterous romances were normally the sole romances, the ideal of wedded bliss was titillating and strange.

In the centuries that followed her model of romantic marriage grew with the class that embraced it: the bourgeoisie. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, it became a mark of distinction from the “decadent” aristocracy, which still viewed love as a game. Many Romantic works contrast the earnestness of middle-class love with aristocratic cynicism. With the triumph of the bourgeoisie, romantic marriage came to be seen as not only desirable, but normal. Obviously, the ideal was not always fulfilled, as Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary made painfully clear; yet it remained the cherished dream of most Westerners of all classes for the better part of two centuries. When it was noted that in other times and places romance and marriage were not connected with each other, it was supposed that those other times and places were at fault: surely romantic marriage was normal.

In our own time, the ideal is under heavy attack. Modern ideas about the importance of sex diminish drastically the importance of virginity and the romanticization of fidelity which were a part of it. Easy divorce robs the concept of some of its more exalted aspects–few people expect “happily ever after.” Psychiatrists counsel that it is a mistake to expect one other person to fulfill all one’s emotional needs and blame many break-ups on excessively high expectations for romance. Most of the fictional romantic couples of the 18th and 19th centuries would be diagnosed as neurotic co-dependents today. Being willing to die for love is distinctly out of fashion. Feminists have criticized the romantic ideal as damaging women, idealizing thrilling but unstable, unsupportive men and counseling them to damaging self-sacrifice. The instability of modern marriage combined with the enormous lengthening of the modern life span has also made people more distrustful of love at first sight. People are much more pragmatic about their demands for a suitable partner than in the Romantic Age. Hence our ancestors would probably judge us as hopelessly incapable of true love, just was we may judge them as emotionally disturbed. We still speak the language of romantic love, echoing those long-ago troubadours, but few of us live it.

As we struggle to define what we think love should be in this age of transition, it is fascinating to look back three centuries to that earlier age of transition in which the ideal enshrined in so many novels, plays, and poems was struggling to emerge.

Book One

The endnotes beginning on p. 177 explain who many of the historical characters are. It is important to realize that Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois (also called “Mme [“Madame”] de Valentinois), official mistress to King Henri II is far more prominent at the court than Henry’s legitimate spouse and queen, Catherine de Medici.

Kings had less choice in their marriage partners than anyone. Only women of the most exalted rank could qualify, and political considerations normally overrode personal ones. But the king was normally compensated for his unromantic marriage by being able to publicly maintain a mistress of his own choosing. She was required to be suitably noble, and it was strongly preferred that she be a married woman whose husband could be bought off or ignored because it was crucial that any children the mistress bore the king not be able to make legitimate claims on the succession to the throne. If the king’s illegitimate offspring were officially designated the children of another man, the country was protected from potentially ruinous power struggles among claimants for the throne. (This precaution did not always work: some illegitimate offspring made just such claims.) The husband and children were usually rewarded with titles and estates.

On the other hand, the queen, whose sole important role was to bear legitimate heirs to the throne, was closely watched to make sure she did not take lovers. An affair with the queen was technically high treason, punishable by death.

The other courtiers naturally indulged in love affairs as well, though more discreetly than the king. For the little inbred community at Versailles, gossip about who was sleeping with whom was a major source of entertainment. Technically, these people were all Christians who disapproved of adultery, but actually they assumed it was nearly universal, so much so that faithfulness could seem an astonishing novelty. However, official morality dictated that a married woman whose affair became public should be disgraced and banished from polite society. Therefore the usual pattern was to be discreet enough to avoid a serious scandal, whatever gossip might be going around. For women, the game was extremely dangerous.

Like all historical novelists, Madame de Lafayette romanticizes the period she is writing about. In fact, the court of Louis XIV, where she lived, was far more splendid, refined, and brilliant–if also more artificial and constrained–than the court of Henri II.

Dauphin is the French title for the heir to the throne, just as in England the heir is called the “Prince of Wales.” Note that the Queen is not content to fade into the background, and constantly schemes to undermine the power of the Duchesse de Valentinois. She cannot confront her directly, however; and carefully hides her true feelings. As you read, note examples of people at the court concealing their true feelings. This is a major theme in the novel.

In the paragraph beginning “Never has any court . . . ” a number of people are named, and there are many similar passages to come. Read the notes about them, but don’t worry about keeping track of anyone named here except the Dauphin and Dauphine and “Madame, the King’s sister,” all of whom will turn up again later. Despite the large number of people named in this novel, fewer than a dozen of them are important to the plot. The Duc de Nemours is one of the three most important figures in the novel. What are his main characteristics? How successful is he with women? What role does love play in his life?

Note how marriages and love affairs are intimately entangled with power struggles: at the court the personal is literally political. The notion that Queen Elizabeth I might have been romantically interested in the (fictional) Duc de Nemours is of course highly flattering to the French; but the main reason for the invention of this one-sided “romance” will become apparent later. If M. de Nemours had married Elizabeth, he would have become King of England.

The heroine is introduced as the most beautiful of women, as had been the case with almost every heroine in European fiction before her. How has Mlle (Mademoiselle=”Miss”) de Chartres been raised differently from other women? What are her mother’s views on love? What is her image of an ideal marriage?

In the era before literary Realism, psychological description was considered much more important than physical description. What precisely do we know about Mlle de Chartres’ appearance? How does the Prince de Clèves react when he first sees her, and how does his reaction affect her? How does he react to her reaction? “Madame” (“Mrs.”) is the form of address appropriate to a married woman. We have now met all three of our principals: Mlle de Chartres, the Prince de Clèves, and the Duc de Nemours. Secondary characters to keep track of include Mme (“Madame”) de Chartres and the Chevalier (“Knight”) de Guise (also called by his other title “Vidame”). Remember that “true” love in this era is always love at first sight.

Note the classic passage in the paragraph beginning “Mme de Chartres, who had been so careful” outlining the connection between love and politics at court. What do you think it is about a court like this that makes love affairs so much more consequential than they usually are in a democracy? “A certain age” is a coy French expression for middle age as it applies to women. The implication is that women who are aging and no longer likely to engage in love affairs are likely to turn toward “virtue.”

After having preached the virtues of love in marriage to her daughter, how does Mme de Chartres proceed to find her a suitable husband? Note the phrase “Those of a romantic disposition are always pleased at finding any excuse to speak with their lovers.” This sort of aphorism was extremely popular in 17th-century France. Writers loved to deploy their worldly wisdom by making keen observations of human behavior. It is one of their chief contributions to literature, aimed at teaching the reader about human emotions and behavior.

Why is it especially courageous of the Prince de Clèves to court Mlle. de Chartres after his father’s death? Note that although he is a mature man of high rank, he could not proceed against his father’s wishes during the latter’s lifetime. “M.” is the standard abbreviation for “Monsieur,” “Mister.” Rephrase and explain this sentence: “The only flaw in his happiness was the fear that she might not find him to her liking, and he would have preferred the good fortune of being loved by her to the certainty of marriage without it.” Note especially the last sentence in this paragraph. It is the key to much of the rest of the novel. How does Mlle de Chartres react to this declaration? What are her feelings toward him? What about Mme de Chartres’ behavior contradicts her earlier statements? “Person” in this context means ‘body.” How does Mlle de Chartres defend herself against the Prince’s criticism? How does he reply to that defense? Which of them is the more insightful, in your opinion?

When the young woman tells her mother how distressed she is by the Prince’s passion for her, the latter is astonished at her frankness. This openness contrasts sharply with the normal patterns at the court; and though technically it is a high virtue, it will prove her downfall. Why is her mother so anxious that this match not fall through? Note that when Mlle de Chartres is married she becomes the Princesse or Mme de Clèves.

What does it mean to say that “as a husband, he did not cease to be a lover”? What about their first meeting seems to indicate that Mme de Clèves and M. de Nemours are “meant for each other”? Why does the Dauphine say it is flattering to the Duc that Mme de Clèves claims not to know who he is? Note Mme de Chartres’ comment, “If you judge by appearances in this place, you will often be deceived, because what appears to be the case hardly ever is.” The long passage in which Mme de Chartres recounts the story of Mme de Valentinois is interesting but of no direct relevance to the plot of this novel although it illustrates well the social attitudes and customs of the court. In what sense was the former King “scrupulously faithful to his mistresses”? Note that Mme de Valentinois was first one of unofficial mistresses of this King and then the mistress of his son, the present King.

What is M. de Nemours giving up because of his love for Mme de Clèves? Why, despite his extreme discretion, is the Princesse able to tell that M. de Nemours is in love with her? Why does M. de Nemours object to seeing his mistress at a ball? Analyze Mme de Clèves’ reaction. What reason does she give her mother for avoiding the ball, and why is it significant? How does her mother discover her affection for M. de Nemours? Analyze the paragraph beginning “The Dauphine believed Mme de Chartres. . . .” It is a classic example of analysis of the kind that characterizes the roman d’analyse.

Why doesn’t Mme de Chartres want her daughter to know that she knows that the latter loves M. de Nemours? What causes her to feel ashamed about her feelings toward her husband? Note how consistently major developments hinge on what is not said or done. In a closed society where everyone knows everyone else intimately, the slightest nuances can be very revealing. It is not surprising that this sort of fiction evolves in courts. Try to list some examples as you go on.

Analyze the paragraph which begins “She could not help being disturbed at seeing him.” What mixed feelings does she feel, and for what reasons? Mme de Chartres’ deathbed interview with her daughter is one of the most important scenes in the novel. Her words are to exercise a powerful influence over her daughter for the rest of her life. It is crucial to remember that Mme de Clèves has been utterly devoted to her mother who has raised her to be exceptionally virtuous. Her statement that she would prefer to die before having to witness her daughter’s infidelity to her husband must be particularly influential. To give in would be to shame her mother’s memory. “Preparing for death” involves religious devotion, thoroughly confessing and repenting of sins and looking toward heaven and away from earthly things, even such a beloved thing as one’s daughter. Why does the Princesse come to feel that M. de Clèves can protect her from her feelings for M. de Nemours?

Book Two

The story of Mme de Tournon is interesting in itself; but its main contribution to the plot is to provide a bad example of a faithless woman which can repel our heroine and make her want to flee temptation. There is a kind of pattern set up in the episodes of the missing ring (dealt with here), the missing portrait and the missing letter (which come later). The paragraph beginning “I am giving you the advice,” is one of the major turning points of the novel. What is your initial reaction to the Prince’s declaration of how he would act if his wife told him she was attracted to someone else? Why is Sancerre “in a state where [he] can neither be consoled, nor hate” Mme de Tournon? Why does Mme de Clèves think it is safe for her to follow her husband’s advice that she should start seeing people again? In what way do subsequent events prove her wrong? What does this paragraph mean: “These last words of the Dauphine’s caused Mme de Clèves to feel a different kind of agitation from the one she had experienced a few moments before”? How does Nemours manage to court Mme de Clèves in their interview in her bedroom without seeming obviously to do so? What is her reaction? Look for a good example of an aphorism on p. 75. How do Mme de Clèves’ attempts to flee M. de Nemours affect him? Why is she reluctant to tell her husband that it is rumored that M. de Nemours is in love with her?

The king’s point in scoffing at the astrologer’s prediction is only social equals could duel; and only another king could legitimately duel with a king. Watch for the ultimate outcome of this prediction. Why does everyone suddenly agree that astrology is worthless? How does M. de Nemours turn this conversation to his advantage? Why is M. de Nemours able to recognize the signs of her love for him although they are successfully hidden from others? Why does she dislike Queen Elizabeth’s portrait? Elizabeth was highly intelligent, though perhaps not all that beautiful; but we shall never know because she rigidly controlled the official portraits made of her according to a stereotyped image. Read note 16, on Marguerite de Navarre, a most extraordinary woman. Besides being a writer, she was friend and protector to the great Renaissance French writer François Rabelais.

The sketch of Henry VIII’s life retells the familiar tale of his split with Rome and his tumultuous marital career. All of this is relevant because he was Elizabeth’s father. Note that the portrait of Mme de Clèves wins out easily over the portrait of the Queen of England. Why doesn’t Mme de Clèves demand her portrait back? What forces are acting on her? What use does M. de Nemours make of her hesitancy?

Though during the 16th century the armored knight was being rendered obsolete by the gradual improvement in firearms, tournaments were still a popular form of entertainment. Why is the Duc de Guise so upset at Mme de Clèves’ reaction to M. de Nemours’ accident? What effects does the lost letter have on Mme de Clèves? Women in court society rarely approached men as lovers; they waited to be courted. Why is the Queen an exception, do you think?

Book Three

Why is M. de Nemours unperturbed by Mme de Clèves’ initial refusal to see him? How does the missing letter bring the two of them closer together? In what way does the Dauphine say that Mme de Clèves is unlike all other women? Note that the failure of the clumsy forgery has momentous consequences for the Dauphine. In this society of multiple casual affairs jealousy can still be a powerfully destructive force. Analyze Mme de Clèves’ own analysis of her feelings of jealousy concerning M. de Nemours. These are important in understanding her subsequent actions.

The momentous discussion between M. and Mme de Clèves in the country is the most important scene in the novel. Why does she speak as she does? What is his reaction? Why doesn’t M. de Nemours assume at first that it is himself that she loves? What is his ultimate reaction after the discussion is finished? What effect does her husband’s trust have on Mme de Clèves? What do you think of M. de Nemours’ use of the conversation in the country which he had overheard between M. and Mme de Clèves? In what way are M. de Nemours and Mme de Clèves trying to deliver messages to each other while seeming to speak to the Dauphine on p. 127? What messages are they conveying? As mentioned earlier in the description of the preparations for the tournament, it was traditional for the combatants to include some decoration in their costume which alluded more or less discreetly to their beloveds. How does M. de Nemours allude to his love for Mme de Clèves in his costume, and how does his choice fit in with one of the recurrent patterns we have discussed in this novel?

Book Four

Notice that one of the consequences of the King’s death is the exile of the formerly powerful Duchesse de Valentinois. Note Mme de Clèves’ complex reaction to the news that M. de Nemours is coming to see her. Why has M. de Clèves been unable to live up to the ideal of sympathetic husband he preached earlier? The scene of the wrapping of the cane seems irresistibly phallic to modern interpreters, who may not be far off the mark; for Renaissance writers delighted in naughty allusions like this. In the meditations of M. de Nemours after the scene of the cane-wrapping, he uses familiar stereotyped love language: “the greatest of favors” is intercourse, “unkindness” is refusal to have intercourse.

It was universally believed that strong emotions could lead directly to a life-threatening fever; and indeed, modern research has done much to link emotional disturbances to organic disease. Dying “with fortitude” was considered admirable because a good Christian should display confidence that he/she is about to enter into eternal life. What effects does his death have on Mme de Clèves? Which of M. de Nemours’ qualities especially attract Mme de Cléves when she glimpses him in garden? What prevents her from marrying him now that she is legally able to? What are her fears about the future course of their relationship should she allow it to develop? What do you think of her arguments? Try to see both sides of the issue.

What effect does the approach of death have on Mme de Clèves’ feelings? Since she dies pious and virtuous, would you say that the message of this novel is a religious one? Why or why not?

More study guides for Love in the Arts:


First mounted October 16, 1997

Last revised March 22, 2000.

Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet (1591?)

The notes were prepared for use with an edition of Romeo and Juliet bound together with the book for West Side Story and in conjunction with a showing of Franco Zeffirelli’s film version of the play, but they will be useful with any edition or production.

The introduction focuses primarily on comparisons with West Side Story, so it has relatively little to say about the play as such. As noted, this is often regarded as a lesser Shakespeare tragedy by scholars, but what should also be kept in mind is that audiences have made it one of the most beloved plays of all time from the Elizabethan Age to the present. Romeo and Juliet are often considered the archetypal lovers, and at one time “a romeo”–meaning a lover–was a common noun. Several operas and ballets have been based on the story. The play also contains some of Shakespeare’s most-quoted lines, and some of the most beautiful.

Although Shakespeare’s dialogue often reads beautifully enough on the page, please keep in mind that he never intended his words to be read. This is a script for performance, and our study of it will prepare us for a version of the real thing: the film version directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Like all productions, it is an interpretation, leaving some things out, putting others in, placing emphases differently than other productions. Your goal in this assignment should be to familiarize (or refamiliarize) yourself with exactly what Shakespeare wrote so that you can observe what it is Zeffirelli has done with it.

Shakespeare wrote almost no original plots. He used an English poetic retelling of an old Italian tale: Arthur Brooke’s The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet. Despite its Italian setting, the language, attitudes, and customs are generally English. In one respect, Shakespeare altered the story in a way which is shocking to modern audiences: he lowered Juliet’s age from sixteen to just under fourteen. There are several reasons he might have done so. Boys played the female roles in Shakespeare’s theater, and they might have been more convincing as young girls than as more mature women (though audiences presumably found a boy playing Cleopatra or Lady Macbeth satisfactory). Shakespeare emphasizes the over-hastiness and premature nature of this love affair and probably felt he was underlining this theme at a time when marriage at fifteen was considered by no means shocking, though marriage at eighteen or twenty was in fact much more common. Shakespeare was notoriously inept at depicting children in his plays and he may not have had a really clear idea of what a fourteen-year-old girl would be like. Finally, the fact that the story is Italian may have fitted in with Northern European prejudices about hot-blooded early-maturing Southerners. However we imagine her, Juliet is given some of the most brilliant and memorable lines in the play, and is notable for her courage and wit.

Italian cities were infamous for their long-lasting, deadly feuds between prominent families. Elizabeth, like most absolute monarchs, abhorred dueling and feuding and tried to suppress it. Shakespeare’s play is in part his contribution to her “just say no” campaign against such conflicts.


Modern taste prefers not to be told right at the beginning of a play how it will end; but many in Shakespeare’s audience already knew the story and were looking to enjoy how well it was told, not seeking to be surprised by original plot turns.

Act I: Scene 1

The Elizabethans delighted in word-play, especially puns. Much of this seems labored and dull to modern readers, but imagine it as a game in which actors are flinging out their lines at a smart pace with the audience scrambling to follow and untangle the word-play in a sort of contest between playwright and audience. The slow delivery and heavy emphasis which many modern actors bring to these lines is utterly alien to their original spirit. This early scene between the servants of the Capulets and Montagues illustrates the foolishness of the quarrel between the two families.

The sexual punning begins in ll. 25-35 and continues throughout the play. The love of Romeo and Juliet, although idealized, is rooted in passionate sexuality. The Victorian ideal of “pure,” non-sexual romantic love has not yet evolved. In this play there are crude allusions to sex and exalted ones, but the erotic is never very far under the surface.

“Benvolio” means “good will,” and he is obviously more congenial (or “benevolent”) than the irascible Tybalt. Note how Lady Capulet mocks her husband’s eagerness to join the combat at l. 83 and Lady Montague similarly tries to hold her husband back. Although Zeffirelli does not use these lines, he does build upon the attitudes hinted at in a few spots to create tension between the Capulets. Elizabethan audiences loved elaborate sword-play, and a stage direction like they fight conveys little of what might have been very prolonged and complex stage action. Why do you suppose the Prince is so strongly opposed to this sort of feuding?

Montague’s description of Romeo’s melancholy fits exactly contemporary ideas of lovesickness. Thus far, Shakespeare is following tradition. His original contribution will come in contrasting Romeo’s mooning over Rosaline with the fresh, spontaneous passion which Juliet will inspire in him. It is much more difficult for modern audiences to detect the contrast between these two moods, but it is important to be aware that Shakespeare intends a contrast, and a sharp one. The many oxymorons in Romeo’s speech are clichés, meant to evoke his callow, stereotypical attitude toward love. The sexual metaphor at l. 193 is a good example of how far Shakespeare will go to insert erotic allusions into the most unlikely places. The theme (ll. 234-236) that it is a shame for a beautiful young person not to reproduce is worked out at great length in the famous and controversial “procreation sonnets.” What are the most extreme and extravagant things that Romeo has to say about Rosaline?

Act I: Scene 2

Note that Capulet is perfectly aware of what modern medicine has confirmed: early teenage pregnancies are dangerous to the mother. This fact may have been somewhat obscured in Shakespeare’s time by the fact that a great many women of more mature ages died in childbirth; in fact, this may have been the main cause of death in women. The fact that all of Capulet’s other children have died is also a sad reminder of the extremely high infant mortality rates of the day. As we shall see, Juliet’s own mother gave birth at this age, and is therefore now less than thirty, though she thinks of herself as old (her husband is much older). Life was short and people aged rapidly then, facts which make the urgency expressed in this play more understandable. What image in Capulet’s speech to Paris suggests the delight that older men such as they feel in observing attractive young girls? In Elizabethan society, the insane were often imprisoned, chained and beaten in hopes of driving out the devils that possessed them (ll. 55-57), notoriously at London’s Bethlehem Hospital (shortened familiarly to “Bedlam”) where people often went to observe and laugh at the antics of the insane. Inmates could even be rented as entertainment for parties, so there is a consistent connection made between “madness” and humor. What is Benvolio’s motivation in encouraging Romeo to crash the Capulets’ party?

Act I: Scene 3

The nurse is one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters. The bawdy old lady who revels in sex and sympathizes with young lovers is an old stereotype, dating back at least to the Middle Ages. In many tales, she is a professional bawd, a go-between who facilitates the illicit meetings of young lovers, sells love potions, surgically repairs maidenheads, and provides young brides with the means of faking virginity on their wedding night. Though she is no professional, the character of the nurse would have been a recognizable type to Shakespeare’s audience. Note that her very first words are about sex, referring to the fact that the last time she was a virgin she was twelve. The mixture of high tragedy and comedy, of noble characters and common ones like the nurse, is a distinguishing characteristic of Elizabethan drama, much objected to in the 17th and 18th centuries by classical critics. Such blendings were to be allowed in comedy, but not in tragedy. Today they satisfy our preference for life to be portrayed complexly, as a mixture of incongruities.

The first long speech by the nurse illustrates her propensity to run on and on in response to the simplest of questions. Susan (l. 18) is the child the nurse bore and lost the same year that Juliet was born. Nurses often nursed their charges literally. A woman who had lost her own baby was an ideal source of milk for an upper-class infant whose mother preferred not to be troubled with doing her own nursing. Babies were weaned by having a foul-tasting salve smeared on the nipple (l. 30). The bodily intimacy between Juliet and the nurse helps to explain the insistent physicality of the latter’s speeches. Zeffirelli leaves out some of the more obscure references, particularly those alluding to the earthquake. Today a man who would joke about a toddler’s future sexual attitudes would be viewed as distinctly weird, but in the Renaissance such a joke would have been commonplace, intended to connect the married couple with each other over the child’s head. The nurse’s late husband was not sexualizing the child, but reminding his wife how she differs from Juliet in her enthusiasm for sex.

Juliet’s reply to her mother at l. 66 is one of Shakespeare’s often-quoted lines, remarkable in its diplomacy for a young teenager. It is at ll. 71-73 that we learn that Lady Capulet cannot be older than 28. By what process does Lady Capulet seem to expect Juliet to come to love Paris? How is the imagery of her speech reflected in Juliet’s reply? Note that the nurse’s final line also suggests that the main joy of marriage is to be found in lovemaking.

Act I: Scene 4

Most of the opening exchange between Romeo and Mercutio is omitted in the film version. What is the consistent theme of Romeo’s speeches in it? The famous “Queen Mab” speech of Mercutio has been discussed endlessly. It has been criticized because of its seeming irrelevance and extraordinary length. Such criticisms inevitably lead to defenses which declare the speech to express the essence of the play. It certainly illustrates the “mercurial” Mercutio’s character: whimsical, impulsive, and satirical. It has also been a great influence on our modern image of fairies, who were physically indistinguishable from normal humans in most Medieval traditions, though Shakespeare’s fairies, like the older ones, are primarily mischief-makers. Zeffirelli, rather than cutting or omitting the speech as some directors have done, uses it to give an unusual interpretation to the character of Mercutio. See whether you can figure out what he is trying to achieve and how whether you think he has succeeded. What is the mood expressed in Romeo’s final speech?

Act I: Scene 5:

Note how Capulet urges the ladies on to dance even as he excuses himself. He would seem by the following conversation with “Second Capulet” to be in his fifties or sixties. Romeo bursts into some of Shakespeare’s finest poetry upon seeing Juliet for the first time. Men often married much later than women, when they had built sufficient fortunes to earn them a beautiful and noble wife. The modern reader may at first find his musings on Rosaline and his raptures over Juliet equally artificial; but the former are simply a flat recitation of clichés, whereas he makes commonplaces new by the richness of their expression. Paleness of skin was so prized at this time that women painted their skin with lead compounds that rendered them as white as clowns. With the growing importation of African slaves, many painters seized on the contrast between dark-skinned servants and their pale mistresses to “set off” European beauty. The contrast was undoubtedly racist, but based more on aesthetic preferences than racial hatred.

Look for a dark-haired woman meant to be Rosaline early in the film’s ball scene and note how Juliet comes into view. What about his initial praise of her foreshadows her early death? Romeo anticipates the line of approach he will take during the dance by saying that her touch will “bless” his hand. It is crucial to remember that it was universally believed at this time that true love always struck at first sight; love that grew gradually was no love at all. Take note of Capulet’s rebuke to Tybalt in ll. 79-90. Zeffirelli makes one of his most daring moves in his use of this speech. Watch for it. What effect does it have on the subsequent love scene to place this encounter with Tybalt just before it?

The speeches that follow are far too artificial for modern taste, but read sympathetically they are revealing and even moving. However, the religious imagery used by the pair should not deceive you into thinking that this is a pious or even solemn exchange. This is a quick-witted bout of flirtation in which both sides are equally smitten, as is made clear by what follows, but in which Juliet plays the proper young girl’s role of dissecting Romeo’s “lines” as fast as he can think them up. The religious language is more blasphemous than pious. The following modern rewording may convey (feebly) the meaning of the exchange more clearly so that you can go back and enjoy Shakespeare’s beautiful language as he intended it.

Romeo (holding her hand as they dance): “You are like a shrine enclosing a holy relic, and I would be unforgivably uncouth to touch it with my unworthy hand except that I am ready to “kiss away” the damage I have done.” (In other words: “I love holding your hand; may I kiss it?”)

Juliet (probably amused, but cautious, teases him): “There’s nothing wrong with your hand (I like it!), and handholding while we dance is quite legitimate; but you’re being a little too bold in wanting to kiss me. If you’re really a pilgrim, you should greet me only with your hand, as ‘palmers’ do.”

Romeo: “Hey, even holy pilgrims are human: they’ve got lips. Please let me kiss you.”

Juliet: “Pilgrims use their lips for praying, not kissing.”

Romeo: “Fine, so I’m praying to you to let me kiss you. If my prayer isn’t answered I may lose my religious faith.”

Juliet: “Well, if I were a statue of a saint you were praying to, I might just grant your prayer although I’d remain motionless.” (In other words, “I won’t kiss you; but yes, you can kiss me.”)

Romeo: “Stand still while I kiss you.” (He kisses her lips.) “Just as a pilgrim might kiss the statue of a saint in hopes of receiving forgiveness for sins, so your acceptance of my kiss undoes any sin I committed by holding your hand.”

Juliet (thrilled and amused at the same time): “So you claim to have gotten rid of your sin by kissing my lips. Now I’ve got the sin. What are you going to do about that?”

Romeo: “You want me to kiss you again? Great!” (Kisses her again.)

Juliet: “You don’t really need all this artificial argumentation to justify kissing me, you know. Let’s get serious.”

Who would you say is more in charge of the course of events here? Why?

Zeffirelli seems to give the word “chinks” in l. 118 a bawdy meaning even though scholars generally agree that the nurse is for a change speaking of Juliet’s wealth rather than her body. At l. 120, Romeo puts his predicament into bookkeeping language. As the notes say, Juliet is now his life; but more ominously, his continued existence is now in danger because her relatives may well kill him for courting her. Why do you think Juliet asks the nurse about several other people first before mentioning Romeo? Note the foreshadowing in ll. 136-137. The speech that begins on l. 140 is evidently muttered to herself, only half-heard by the nurse. In what sense could it be called a rhyme that she learned from Romeo?

Act II: Prologue

What is it that the Chorus says gives the couple the power to overcome the obstacles which separate them?

Act II: Scene 1

Why do Mercutio’s teasing speeches not bother Romeo? As the notes suggest, ll. 23-30 are a series of sexual puns comparing magic conjuration with sexual intercourse.

Act II: Scene 2

This is the famous “Balcony Scene,” one of the most renowned in all of Shakespeare. But because of its romantic associations it is often misunderstood. Romeo’s passion for Juliet is unambiguously erotic. To Elizabethans sexual desire was not antithetical to romance; it was the essence of romance. In calling for the triumph of the sun over the moon, Romeo is hoping she will not remain a virgin much longer. Women who prolonged their virginity excessively were thought to suffer from “green-sickness,” a malady which could only be cured by healthy lovemaking. Thus the entire opening to this scene is devoted to Romeo’s fevered desire that she will make love with him. Despite his passion, he is shy enough, and polite enough, not to simply burst in upon her. It is the tension between his overwhelming desire and his reticence that shows how much he truly loves her.

The comparison of a woman’s eyes to bright stars was a commonplace, but Shakespeare makes it new by elaborating it in a dazzling series of lines dwelling on the luminosity of Juliet’s beauty. In what way does he say her eyes are brighter than stars? Note the physically intimate image of ll. 24-25. Any poet could call his lady angelic; Shakespeare composes a mini-poem on the theme in ll. 26-32. Pay particular attention to the note on l. 33, which is consistently misinterpreted and even misquoted by people unfamiliar with Elizabethan usage. Note that it is Juliet who is thinking through the consequences of their love more systematically and practically than is Romeo. Does this make her less romantic than he? Explain your answer. Note that it is a series of coincidences which moves this affair along so quickly without Juliet being portrayed as shameless. How does Juliet’s speech at ll. 58-60 reveal both her love and her fear? Note that she almost immediately speaks of the death that threatens him. From the beginning their discourse is threaded with allusions to death. When he says he is in more danger of being slain by her eye, he is using conventional courtly language which goes back centuries. In l. 82 “pilot” is used in the original sense of one who expertly guides a ship through hazardous waters.

Juliet’s long speech starting at l. 85 makes clear that she is still a virtuous young woman who wishes her love had not been so promptly revealed; but now that it has been, she does not intend to look backward. Note how she alludes to Ovid’s famous statement that Jove laughs at the oaths of lovers. Much of the rest of her speech examines a paradox in traditional European attitudes toward love as they concerned women: a woman should fall instantly in love upon first seeing her beloved, but it was highly improper for her to reveal her feelings. Instead, she should insist on a prolonged courtship during which the lover would earn her love. Her rejection of this centuries-old stereotype is thrilling, but also highly dangerous. Note throughout the rest of the play the many references to haste. Haste obviously has its hazards; but what justification does Juliet have for acting quickly?

Just as Romeo had scorned the moon for its virginity, Juliet rejects it as too variable. Again Juliet allows herself to flirt with blasphemy in calling Romeo her god. Romeo’s statement at l. 125 is obviously startling to Juliet, but he quickly recovers by insisting that he will love her faithfully. Having once proclaimed her love, the font of Juliet’s eloquence is unstopped, and she becomes the dominant figure in the rest of the scene. A secret marriage involving an underage girl would certainly not have been valid in England, but Italy is a sort of fantasy-land to the Elizabethan audience: anything is possible. Like “by and by” “anon” meant “immediately;” but it was used so often by people trying to put off demands for immediate action that both expressions eventually came to mean “after a while.” Here it retains its original meaning. In l. 156, “want” means “lack.”

One of the most charming touches in this scene is Juliet being so overwhelmed by Romeo’s presence that she cannot remember why she called him back. The following exchange foreshadows their parallel debate before their parting at dawn the day after their wedding. The first two lines of Romeo’s final speech make clear that lovemaking is still very much on his mind. It is put most romantically, but the sense of his words is “I wish I were lying on top of you.” Zeffirelli picks up on these consistent references to sex to justify having his young lovers all over each other during the scene, spicing things up by dwelling on Olivia Hussey’s considerable cleavage. Despite the fact that no Elizabethan production would have been so physical, Zeffirelli is being true to the message that would have been conveyed by the words to the original audience. Remember that this young pair knows very little about each other except that they are extremely attractive and witty.

Act II: Scene 3

Friar Laurence is sometimes played as a bit of a fool; but Zeffirelli gives him a good bit of dignity. His speech on the healing and harmful properties of plants is another bit of foreshadowing. Just as healing herbs can kill, so love can also lead to death. Note also the image of death in a grave at ll. 83-84. What justification does Laurence offer for agreeing to this highly improper marriage?

Act II: Scene 4

Zeffirelli puts Mercutio’s speech beginning at l. 29 to more aggressive use in his film version. The film’s Mercutio makes the obscene meaning of ll. 95-96 unmistakable. When Mercutio suggests that the nurse is a bawd, he is alluding to the stereotype discussed above. In her speech beginning on l. 159, the nurse expresses her outrage at Mercutio in language intended to expresses her intention to thrash him; but she unintentionally uses a series of terms with double meanings which describe sex instead. So while her intended message is “I’ll beat any man who bothers me” what the audience hears is “I’ll have sex with any man that approaches me.” The original audience probably found this hysterically funny; it is a challenge for the modern actress to convey the ambiguity while keeping the nurse apparently unaware of the double meaning of her speech. Note how Zeffirelli solves this problem.

Act II: Scene 5

The classic comic exchange between Juliet and the nurse illustrates the contrast between old and young which Juliet had outlined in her introductory speech. Note l. 65, in which Nurse is impressed by how “hot” (eager) Juliet is. Zeffirelli takes his cue from this line to direct Olivia Hussey to be extremely agitated, which fits her age and state of mind.

Act II: Scene 6

Watch how Zeffirelli directs this scene to emphasize the “violence” of the young peoples’ passion and trims the dialogue to concentrate the scene. The Friar’s last speech provides plenty of justification for Zeffirelli’s staging. Lots of foreshadowing here.

Act III,: Scene 1

Italians normally take a nap after lunch during the heat of the day. In the height of summer the heat is supposed to create madness. Shakespeare may have moved the action from spring to summer for just this reason. Despite all the laws against it, everyone was intimately familiar with the rules of dueling: to decline a challenge is to declare one’s loss of manhood and nobility. To call someone a villain was a very strong form of challenge. Romeo is here making a tremendous sacrifice for his love, but it looks to the bystanders like cowardice. What does l. 94, usually quoted as “A plague on both your houses,” mean in this context? Note that Mercutio does not die on stage, but is led off. When people do die on stage, Shakespeare has their bodies dragged off, for the simple reason that his stage lacked a curtain, and there was no other way to get the “dead” actors off. Modern directors are not so limited, of course. Why would this be a stronger scene if we were to witness Mercutio’s death? Romeo’s desire for vengeance triumphs over his love for Juliet. Can you make out an argument that this does not necessarily make him an unworthy lover? How is the theme of fatal speed illustrated by this scene? Capital punishment was routine for a wide variety of offenses in the Renaissance (a fact which seems to have done remarkably little to deter crime), as were mutilation, fines, and exile. Imprisonment was rarer, because it was expensive.

Act III: Scene 2

Under the flowery language, Juliet knows exactly what she wants: to make love with Romeo. She seeks to overcome her maidenly modesty and enjoy the legitimate pleasures of marital sex. In classical mythology, many heroes such as Orion were turned into constellations. In imagining such a fate for Romeo she unwittingly foreshadows his imminent end. Juliet’s reaction to the death of Tybalt is one of the pivotal points of the play, and one of the most difficult to stage convincingly. She must be seized by grief but still end by loving Romeo. What mood changes does she go through in this scene, and what causes these changes of mood? Note that Juliet’s rashness in changing moods mirrors that of Romeo in the previous scene. The theme of a young woman marrying death is an ancient one, featured prominently, for instance, in Sophocles’ Antigone.

Act III: Scene 3

Just as Juliet has said she is likely to be wedded to death, so Friar Laurence says Romeo is wedded to calamity. Willfully seeking death–committing suicide–was a mortal sin to both Catholics and Anglicans, a fact that is conveniently ignored by Shakespeare much of the time, but alluded to by the Friar at l. 24. Note how Romeo rebukes him for being old, just as Juliet at rebuked her nurse in Act II: Scene 5. One can understand why this play has always been popular with young people. What reasons does the Friar offer that Romeo should consider himself blessed? Mantua is the nearest city to Verona, roughly 25 miles distant.

Act III: Scene 4

The theme of undue haste continues. What earlier rash act causes Capulet’s rash decision to hurry the marriage of Paris and Juliet? Modern audiences may be prone to blame Paris for not courting Juliet directly, but he is behaving in a much more proper fashion than Romeo. Private courting between young people, though often romanticized, was officially disapproved of. Marriages were supposed to be negotiated by parents. However, widespread resentment against this pattern is reflected in countless stories from the Middle Ages through the 19th Century, when Europeans finally abandoned the custom.

Act III: Scene 5

Shakespeare opens this scene with a variation on the aubade, or “dawn song” tradition of the Middle Ages. Lovers who have spent the night together listen to the morning song of the birds with some alarm as they realize they must part. Again, what makes the scene fresh is not the theme itself but the elaborate and original treatment Shakespeare gives it. Zeffirelli underlines the physicality of the couple’s love in a way that would have been impossible for Shakespeare, by showing quite a bit of their flesh. See whether you think this works (though if you are liable to be offended by R-rated nudity, you may look away). Note how the threat of death runs through their dialogue. Every time we have seen Romeo and Juliet together there has been some form of pressure enforcing haste. Can you recall what these pressures have been? Note the foreshadowing in l. 56.

Juliet indulges in one of Shakespeare’s most clever word-games at ll. 60-65. It is worth puzzling out, and admiring the Elizabethan audience for having been able to pick up on it quickly. When at l. 85 Juliet says she wishes no one but she would avenge her cousin’s death what is the ambiguity in her speech? She continues to equivocate in her next speech where her mother hears her saying she hopes to behold Romeo dead while she is actually saying she will never be satisfied until she beholds him, and that her heart is dead. Her desire to “wreak her love” on Romeo’s body is even more obviously ambiguous: she wants to make love with him again. Why does Juliet ask her mother to find someone to carry a poison to Romeo: isn’t she placing his life in danger? Some viewers react negatively to the way Zeffirelli has directed Olivia Hussey to react to the news of her impending marriage to Paris; but it is important to keep in mind that she is very young, as the director emphasized the very first time we saw her in the film. She is having a typical fourteen-year-old tantrum. Her language is so often sophisticated we may be in danger of forgetting how immature she really is. Shakespeare’s audience expected such language from all manner of characters, and would not have seen an incongruity here. Note that her parents are as rash as she. Their overreaction may seem incredible, but in fact the choice “marry your designated husband or die” was a cliché. Many of us can remember otherwise sane adults banishing their male offspring from their homes when they returned from college with long hair in the sixties, and many parents claimed following the Kent State shootings that they would have wanted their own children to be shot to death by the National Guard had they been involved in antiwar protests. One of the major themes of this play is the foolishness of the older generation, whose passions are even more destructive than those of the younger generation. We have seen before that the nurse lacks scruples; but thus far her lax morals have benefited Juliet. Now she urges Juliet to commit bigamy, which was both illegal and a grievous sin. Juliet reacts quickly, cutting off the nurse from all further confidences. Note how in the final line Juliet is contemplating suicide, though she sensibly seeks Friar Laurence’s advice first.

Act IV: Scene 1

Paris seems to view marriage, as her father does, as a form of medical treatment for Juliet’s sorrow. They think she is too young to know what’s good for her. In what sense is Juliet’s face not her own (l. 36)? Friar Laurence’s plot may seem desperate, but remember that he is in big trouble. He has performed an illicit wedding and fervently wants to avoid colluding in bigamy. Juliet is threatening suicide, as had Romeo. Juliet’s willingness to dwell in a tomb (“charnel house”) is of course prophetic of her actual fate, and encourages the friar to unfold his plot to her. Well into the 19th century physicians were often unable to distinguish deep comas from death, leading to concern that people might sometimes be mistakenly buried alive. Such a story would not have been nearly so far-fetched in Shakespeare’s day as it would be in ours.

Act IV: Scene 2

Now that Juliet is determined on her course of action she does not hesitate to lie outright to her parents.

Act IV: Scene 3

It was traditional for the nurse to sleep in the same room with her young charge until she was married, so Juliet has to find an excuse to be alone. Her terrors at taking the drug are well depicted; she is no dashing heroine to drink off the potion without hesitation, but a very human young girl. Her determination is all the more striking because she has to overcome these very understandable fears. Not only does she fear going mad in the tomb, she almost goes mad here, as she imagines she sees Tybalt’s ghost seeking revenge on Romeo.

Act IV: Scene 4

Had Shakespeare been a woman he might have hesitated to describe an elaborate wedding banquet being planned and executed overnight. From now on Zeffirelli ruthlessly cuts dialogue from most scenes, omitting one important scene altogether. What effect do you think he is trying to achieve by thus abridging the ending of the play?

Act IV: Scene 5

Which character restates the theme of the bride wed to Death? On what grounds does Friar Laurence argue that Juliet is better off dead? What does l. 83 mean: “Yet nature’s tears are reason’s merriment”?

Act V: Scene 1

How does Romeo’s first speech foreshadow his eventual fate? How is the theme of excessive haste continued in this scene?

Act V: Scene 2

What has prevented Friar Laurence’s message from reaching Romeo?

Act V: Scene 3

Note that Zeffirelli omits an important incident from this scene. Why do you think he does? Why does Romeo say he loves Paris better than himself (l. 64)? In what way is his speech to Tybalt’s corpse parallel? Sometimes when Zeffirelli wants more dialogue than Shakespeare provides him, he simply has a line repeated. He rather overdoes this effect with l. 159. Again Juliet shows herself to be bold and resolute in action. Her suicide would of course have been viewed by the Church as a damnable act, but that did not keep the popular imagination from romanticizing it. The theater was considered a thoroughly wicked institution by pious folk and plays do not necessarily reflect the official morality of the day. After all, one of Shakespeare’s few poems published during his lifetime was “The Rape of Lucrece” which idealized suicide. Given what you know of Elizabethan values, why is the Prince’s role at the end of the play so important? Modern directors with different values are apt to prune his part severely or even omit him altogether from the conclusion. How do Montague and Capulet intend to symbolize their reconciliation?

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Last revised February 2, 2000.

Renaissance Love Songs

Whereas the music of the Middle Ages is predominantly sacred, there is a great flourishing of songs dedicated to secular topics, predominately love, in the 15th through the early 17th centuries. With the invention of music printing, the spread of literacy and improved travel musical and poetic ideas traveled rapidly around Europe, creating a distinctive set of ideas which elaborated themes inherited from the troubadours and their descendants. The notion of courtly love was now hardly taken seriously, but its imagery was still powerful.

Gilles Binchois: Dueil angoisseux (text by Christine de Pisan),

from The Castle of Fair Welcome, Hyperion CDA66194, track 6.

Christine de Pisan (or Pizan) was a 14th-century French writer who was wed at 15 and widowed at 25, and dedicated her output of love-lyrics to the memory of her late husband to whom she was utterly devoted. Despite the wish for death expressed in the envoi to this poem, she lived on to compose many other works, often defending women’s rights and praising their accomplishments. Not only is this an unusual work in expressing wifely devotion, but it is also highly original in the way it piles sorrow on sorrow in a torrent of anguished verse. Although Christine is counted as a “Medieval” poet her poem was set by Gilles Binchois, a “Renaissance” composer, reminding us that no sharp boundary separated these periods and that he could respond directly and immediately to her emotion with powerfully moving music.

Grief desespoir, plein de forsennement, grievous despair, full of madness,
Langour sansz fin et vie maleürée endless languor and cursed life,
Pleine de plour, d’angoisse et de tourment, filled with tears, anguish and torment,
Cuer doloreux qui vit obscurement, doleful heart which lives in darkness,
Tenebreux corps sur le point de partir ghostly body at the brink of death,
Ay, sanz cesser, continuellement; I have ceaselessly,continually;
Et si ne puis ne garir ne morir. and so I can neither be healed nor die.
Fierté, durté de joye separée, Disdain, harshness without joy,
Triste penser, parfont gemissement, sad thoughts, deep sighs,
Angoisse grant en las cuer enserrée, Great anguish locked in the weary heart.
Courroux amer porté couvertement Fierce bitterness borne secretly,
Morne maintien sanz resjoïssement, mournful expression or without joy,
Espoir dolent qui tous biens fait tarir, dread which silences all hope,
Si sont en moy , sanz partir nullement; are in me and never leave me;
Et si ne puis ne garir ne morir. and so I can neither be healed nor die.
Soussi, anuy qui tous jours a durée, Cares and concerns which have continued forever,
Aspre veillier, tressaillir en dorment, bitter waking, shuddering sleep,
Labour en vain, à chiere alangourée pointless labor , with languid expression,
En grief travail infortunéement, doomed to the torment of grief,
Et tout le mal, qu’on puet entierement and all the evils which one could ever
Dire et penser sanz espoir de garir, tell or think about, without hope of cure,
Me tourmentent desmesuréement; torment me immeasurably;
Et si ne puis ne garir ne morir. and so I can neither be healed nor die.
L’envoi: Envoi:
Princes, priez à Dieu qui bien briefment Princes, pray to God that very soon
Me doint la mort, s’autrement secourir he will give me death, if he does not wish
Ne veult le mal ou languis durement; by any other means to cure the suffering in which I so bitterly anguish
Et si ne puis ne garir ne morir. and so I can neither be healed nor die.
Translated by Paul Brians

Anonymous (English, 16th Century): Greensleeves,

from Faire, Sweet & Cruell (Bis CD 257): track 9

Of all English Renaissance tunes, this is the most familiar, partly because of its modern use for the Christmas carol “What Child Is This?” However, it was a wildly popular tune in its own day, and was arranged in endless different ways. Here we hear it sung much as it must have sounded in the 16th century. Although the text speaks in the voice of a man spurned by his lady love, it is here sung by a woman, which would not have bothered a Renaissance audience one bit. They had little concern for the gender of the singer of a song so long as the voice was a pleasant one. The message was conveyed by the words and melody, and not by the person of the singer.

Alas my love, ye do me wrong
to cast me off discurteously:
And I have loved you so long,
Delighting in your companie.

Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight:
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my Ladie Greensleeves.

I have been readie at your hand,
to grant what ever you would crave
I have both waged life and land,
your love and good will for to have.

Greensleeves was all my joy, etc.

Thou couldst desire no earthly thing,
But still thou hadst it readily,
Thy musicke still to play and sing,
And yet thou wuldst not love me.


Greensleeves was all my joy, etc.

Greensleeves now farewell adieu
God I pray to prosper thee,
For I am still thy lover true
Come once again and love me.


Greensleeves was all my joy, etc.

Marchetto Cara (Italian, 1465-1525): Hor Vendut’ho la Speranza (Barzelletta):

from Renaissance Music from the Courts of Mantua and Ferrara (Chandos CHAN 8333), track 18.

This song reflects the keen Renaissance interesting in banking and trade by treating hope (hope of being loved) as a commodity which has just suffered a fall in the market, for the poet’s lady has proven false to him. He concludes that hoping for her love is foolish; he would prefer to invest in a more constant lover.

Giulio Caccini: Amarilli mia bella (text by Giovanni Battista Guarini)

from Giulio Caccini: le Nuove Musiche, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77164-2-RG, track 10.

This popular madrigal from Italy has a simple text which uses a traditional Arcadian name: Amayrillis. To take the arrow out of the lover’s heart is to heal him of love’s wound, and that can only be done by lovemaking.

Rossino Mantovano: Lirum Bililirum

from The King’s Singers Madrigal History Tour, EMI Angel CDM 7 69837 2, track 2

Madrigal composers delighted in sound effects, especially those related to music. Here the composer imitates the sound of a muted lute in the refrain. The text is a routine lover’s complain based on long, unrequited “service.”

Lirum bililirum, li-lirum, lirum, lirum. Lirum bililirum, li-lirum, lirum, lirum.
Deh si soni la sordina. Ah, sound the muted instrument.
Tu m’intendi ben, Pedrina, You hear me well, Pedrina
Ma non già per il dovirum. –and not just out of duty.
Lirum bililirum, li-lirum, lirum li Lirum bililirum, li-lirum, lirum li
Deh, si soni la sordina, Ah, sound the muted instrument.
Deh, si soni la sordina, Ah, sound the muted instrument.
Le ses an che t’vo mi ben I have loved you for six years
E che t’son bon servidor, and been a good servant to you,
Ma t’aspet che l’so ben but I’ve been waiting for you so long
Ch’al fin sclopi per amor. that I shall end by bursting with love.
Deh, non da plu tat dolor, Ah, don’t give me more grief;
Tu sa ben che dig il virum. you know well that I speak the truth.
Trans. Paul Brians

Pierre Certon: La la, la, je ne l’ose dire

from The King’s Singers Madrigal History Tour, EMI Angel CDM 7 69837 2, track 16.

Renaissance writers delighted in joking about cuckolds. The supposition that most women were unfaithful to their husbands gave encouragement to lovers and of course was never applied by married men to their own cases. Here the composer cleverly imitates the sound of gossipy whispering in the refrain.

La, la, la, je ne l’ose, je ne l’ose dire La, la, la, I dare not say it, I dare not say it
(et) la, la, la, je le vous diray. (and) La, la, la I will tell it to you.
Il est ung homme en no ville There is a man in our town
Qui de sa femme est jaloux. who is jealous of his wife.
Il n’est pas jaloux sans cause He is not jealous without cause,
Mais il est cocu du tout but he is a cuckold by everybody.
(Et) la, la, la, etc. La, la , la, etc.
Il ne’est pas jaloux sans cause, He is not jealous without cause,
Mais il est cocu du tout. but is cuckolded by everybody.
Il apreste et si la maine He prepares to go out and if he takes her
Au marché s’en va atout. everything goes badly at the market.
Translated by Paul Brians

Thomas Morley: Now Is the Month of Maying

from Flora Gave Me Fairest Flowers (Collegium COLCD 105), IMS CDM 489, track 11.

The Renaissance delighted in images of outdoor lovemaking even more than the Middle Ages. The song is apparently about dancing, but dancing is often a metaphor for lovemaking, and “barley-break” is what we would call “a roll in the hay.” Such punning sexual allusions and even more frankly bawdy verse are extremely common in madrigals.

Now is the month of maying,
When merry lads are playing, fa la,
Each with his bonny lass
Upon the greeny grass. Fa la.

The Spring, clad all in gladness,
Doth laugh at Winter’s sadness, fa la,
And to the bagpipe’s sound
The nymphs tread out their ground. Fa la.
Fie then! why sit we musing,
Youth’s sweet delight refusing? Fa la.
Say, dainty nymphs, and speak,
Shall we play at barley-break? Fa la.

William Byrd: This Sweet and Merry Month of May

from Flora Gave Me Fairest Flowers (Collegium COLCD 105), track 13.

This is a madrigal in honor of Queen Elizabeth. She encouraged a cult which regarded her as the beloved of her people, though a perpetually virginal one. England is the “second Troy,” which may seem an odd epithet (since Troy was notoriously the loser of the famous Trojan War), but ancient legend said that just as Rome had been founded by Aeneas, a fugitive from Troy, so Britain had been founded by another such Trojan prince, named Brutain. Pure propaganda, of course, but highly effective in a time when every country wanted to emulate ancient Rome.

This sweet and merry month of May,
While Nature wantons in her prime,
And birds do sing, and beasts do play
For pleasure of the joyful time,
I choose the first for holiday,
And greet Eliza with a rhyme:
O beauteous Queen of second Troy,
Take well in worth a simple toy.

From Kate Farrell: Art & Love: An Illustrated Anthology of Love Poetry. New York: Bulfinch Press, 1990.

Petrarch : To Laura

Francesco Petrarca devoted dozens of sonnets to his love for Laura, who died in the black death of the 14th century without ever having returned his passion. These became some of the most influential and imitated love lyrics ever written, translated and set to music all over Europe. He did not invent the “Petrarchan sonnet” form, but he made it famous. This is one of several sonnets he wrote after her death. He imagines that her brief presence in the world was a miraculous angelic apparition. She becomes almost godlike in her powers, with the music of her speech transforming nature.

From Wendy Mulford, ed.: Love Poems by Women. New York: Fawcett, 1991.

Louise Labé: I Live, I Die, I Burn, I Drown

Louise Labé wrote some of the most passionate love sonnets in all of literature. Like Sappho, she was bitterly criticized for expressing her feelings too frankly for a woman. This is not one of her most famous poems, unfortunately; but it expresses vividly the intensity of the anguish she felt when her lover was unfaithful.

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Created by Paul Brians

More about Renaissance music.

Medieval Love Songs

Although modern Western ideas about romantic love owe a certain amount to the classical Greek and Roman past, they were filtered through the very different culture of the European Middle Ages. One can trace the concepts which dominated Western thinking until recently to the mid-12th Century. Before that time, European literature rarely mentions love, and women seldom figure prominently. After that time, within a decade or two, all has changed. Passionate love stories replace epic combat tales and women are exalted to almost god-like status. Simultaneously, the Virgin Mary becomes much more prominent in Catholic devotions, and emotionalism is rampant in religion.

The pioneers of this shift in sensibility seem to have been the troubadours, the poets of Provence (now Southern France). Provençal is a language related to French, Italian and Spanish, and seems to have facilitated the flow of ideas across the often ill-defined borders of 12th-Century Europe. It has often been speculated that Arabic poetry may have influenced their work by way of Moorish Spain. Although this seems likely, it is difficult to confirm.

Once the basic themes are laid down by the troubadours, they are imitated by the French trouvères, the German Minnesingers (love poets) and others. Thus, even though the disastrous 13th-Century Albigensian crusade put an end of the golden age of the troubadours, many of their ideas and themes persisted in European literature for centuries afterward.

Guiraut de Bornelh: Leu chansoneta, from The Dante Troubadours, Nimbus NIM 5002, track 2

An unromantic but obvious fact is that much if not most troubadour poetry consists of artificial compositions, sometimes commissioned, sometimes written for competitions, rather than being private outpourings directed to the poet’s lady-love. This is particularly obvious in this poem where the poet mentions the lady almost offhandedly in the final stanza, although he does claim that he is dying for love of her. The competitive nature of this poem is made clear when the poet hopes it will travel to my Lord of Eblo, a rival troubadour who wrote in the obscure trobar clus style. The second stanza continues with Guiraut bragging that he knows how to tell a true noble from a base man by his wit. He should be able to speak eloquently when necessary and know when to stop. The third stanza says that only nobles willing to engage in duels should get involved in poetry contests with him. The reference to God turning water into wine is an allusion to Christ’s miracle at the wedding feast of Cana (John 2: 1-12). True wine (great poetry) is pleasing only to the great. After all this bragging, the final stanza devoted to his lady seems almost an afterthought. The conventional language of courtly love requires that the lover present himself as the feudal inferior of his Lady, whom he serves humbly. The ideal lover keeps his love affair a secret, so the poet cannot name her publicly. In fact, she may be wholly imaginary. Unconsummated love can theoretically lead to death; but the poet darkly hints at a more serious loss: of his ability to write.

Bertran de Born: Ges de disnar , from The Dante Troubadours, Nimbus NIM 5002, track 5.

Bertran was one of the most famous troubadours, especially renowned for his passionate devotion to combat. Yet even he wrote love poetry. Like much troubadour verse, this poem is a loose collection of images whose connections are somewhat obscure. The introduction, defining what good service is at a proper inn, tells us that he is a connoisseur who knows quality when he sees it; therefore his praise of Lady Lena can be trusted. The standard form which courtly love took involved the admiration of a single man for a married woman. Whether such affairs were really as common as the poets implied in questionable, but the idea becomes so standardized that Bertran can write this love poem to the Lord of Poitou’s wife without worrying that he will be upset, even mentioning her underclothes! In the second stanza he praises her in traditional terms as noble, but takes time to praise himself as well as the best of poets. Since he has deigned to praise her, she is all the more worthy. Her husband was heir to the throne of Provence, and he anticipates her elevation to the rank of queen. In the last stanza, he describes his love for her in intimate detail and says that he would rather have her than the city of Corrozana. All of this is the rankest flattery, and would not be taken seriously by any of the parties.

Raimbaut de Vaqueiras: Kalenda Maya, from The Dante Troubadours, Nimbus NIM 5002, track 11.

This poem is extremely popular because of the light, lilting tune it is set to. The troubadours were composers as well as poets, though they sometimes reused older melodies when they set their lyrics. At first we might look at this poem and feel that at last we have encountered a genuine love poem, filled with heart-felt emotion. But no, the final lines reveal that it is just as artificial as the others. In ancient times May Day was the festival day of Venus, and it continued to be associated with love in the Middle Ages. The usual signs of spring in poetry are leaves on the trees and birds singing. Both are mentioned here, but instead of bringing joy, they only reinforce the loneliness of his beloved. The lovers have been separated by “the jealous one,” a stock figure who is sometimes the lady’s husband, sometimes just an envious meddler who has discovered and publicized the secret affair. In the second stanza he begs with the lady not to allow the jealous one to succeed in the plot of separating the two of them. Grace is of course an important theological term in Christianity, but in courtly love language it is applied to the willingness of the lady to grant favors (usually in the form of love-making) to her suitor. Since the lover presents himself as suffering from love-longing, he asks for her “pity” (which has roughly the same meaning as “grace”). The message is the same as such old blues lines as “Ooh Baby, I need you so bad!” but expressed in more pretentious language. We now learn that despite their intense relationship, they have not yet actually made love (and neither, the poet reassures himself, has she taken any other lovers). Whoever does not love this lady leads a worthless life. Note the insistent repetition of terms relating to her nobility. In this class-bound society, beauty, virtue, and nobility were supposed to go hand-in-hand, though it was widely acknowledged that sometimes they did not. Then we are shocked to find the concluding lines addressed, not to the mysterious, marvelous lady, but to the poet’s patron, Lord Engles. Alas, the poem is yet another set piece written to please a patron and not the outpourings of a romantic soul in love.

Anonymous French: L’autrier m’iere levaz, from Medieval Songs and Dances, CRD 3421, track 3.

Up to this point all of our poets have been Provençal. This one is written in 12th-Century French, a quite distinct language, but differing substantially from modern French (in which the title would be something like L’autre jour je me levais). This is a pastourelle, a common poetic form which makes different use of the class structure of Medieval society than the poems we have read earlier. The theme of these poems is that knights can find attractive lovers among the common people, especially shepherdesses. The courtship is depicted as much more crude and rapid than the elegant and prolonged maneuverings required for a courtly affair. Today pastourelles would be considered little more than poems of sexual harassment, and this one ends in what is essentially a rape. Part of the appeal of such poems for noble (male) audiences was the thrill of the forbidden: crossing class boundaries, slumming. I don’t know how the melody of this song struck Medieval listeners, but it has always seemed oddly sinister to me. The translation here is in prose, but it effectively conveys the poem’s message.

Like most love poetry it is set in spring, beneath the flowering trees. Just as in ancient pastoral poetry there is a conventional set of names by which the rustic characters are identified, so Ermenjon is recognizably a peasant name. She is addressed not as Lady, for only noblewomen qualified as ladies. “Sister” is a much more casual, commonplace term. She has been raised well enough to know that she should have nothing to do with her social superiors and tries to escape his unwanted attentions to reminding him of his status and hers. But he claims to have broader views. His praise of her sense (intelligence) is insincere, since they have obviously never spoken before this moment. Like many pastourelle heroines, Ermenjon already has a shepherd-lover, this one named Perrin (another typical peasant name). When she tells him how afraid she is, the knight deliberately misinterprets her as saying that she is afraid of Perrin’s jealousy, when in fact she had been threatening the knight with the shepherd’s vengeance. She makes clear her rejection of him by saying her body cannot be bought even for all the rich goods displayed in the great market at the city of Limoges. The response of the knight is then to rape her. Fulfilling standard male fantasies of the time, she is much pleased and glad that he ignored her resistance. The message is clear: “No matter what women say, they all want it. Just be firm.” Modern attempts of women to tell men directly and repeatedly how stupid and revolting this point of view is have been only partially successful, so it is not surprising to find it widely accepted in the Middle Ages. What is surprising is that in about half the pastourelles the young woman succeeds in rebuffing her noble suitor and sending him on his way. In such poems she is clearly the smarter of the two, and the more virtuous. The existence of both traditions side by side should keep up us from over-generalizing about Medieval attitudes.

In order to balance things a bit, you will find in your class packet an example of such a pastourelle. Why is the knight’s attempt flatter the woman by claiming she must be of noble descent actually insulting? How does the shepherdess answer him? Note that although he begins by praising the young woman, he ends by cursing her. This hostility lurks not too far beneath the surface of many love poems in which the man professes himself to be the slavish servant of his beloved. Her final reply is rather obscure, but it seems to say he will get as much pleasure out of her as a hungry man gets out of painted food, and he can hope for as much cooperation from her as someone who expects to be miraculously fed by God, like the ancient Hebrews wandering in the wilderness of Sinai.

Anonymous Italian: Lamento di Tristano, from Medieval Songs and Dances, track 1.

After Lancelot and Guinevere, the most famous fictional lovers of the Middle Ages were Tristan and Iseult, another adulterous pair who were often separated. (One episode from their story is told by Marie de France in the lai of Chevrefoil). Tristan is portrayed as an outstanding musician, and is imagined here as having composed this lament during one of these separations. Although the story is set in Cornwall, its most famous retellings were Continental, and it is not at all surprising to find this title turning up in 14th-Century Italy.

Guillaume de Machaut:Foy porter

Besides being a famous poet, Machaut was one of the greatest composers of the 14th Century. Working in Paris, he was at the heart of the development of polyphony. This first song, however, is monophonic, a love song with typically intricate rhyming. My translation doesn’t aim at poetry, but does get the essential theme across: the irresistibility of love. It was believed that gemstones could be used to heal various sufferings. Only the lady can heal his suffering. How does the poet claim loving the lady has made him a better person? The idea that courtly love improved one’s character was a crucial part of the whole tradition.

Foy porter, honneur garder I want to stay faithful, guard your honor,
Et pais querir, oubeir Seek peace, obey
Doubter, servir, et honnourer Fear, serve and honor you,
Vous vueil jusques au morir Until death,
Dame sans per. Peerless Lady.
Car tant vous aim, sans mentir For I love you so much, truly,
Qu’on poroit avant tarir that one could could sooner dry up
La haute mer the deep sea
Et ses ondes retenir and hold back its waves
Que me peusse alentir than I could constrain myself
de vous amer. from loving you,
Sans fausser; car mi penser, without falsehood; for my thoughts
Mi souvenir, mi plaisir my memories, my pleasures
Et mi desir sont sans finer and my desires are perpetually
En vous que ne puis guerpir n’entroublier of you, whom I cannot leave or even briefly forget.
Il ne’est joie ne joir There is no joy or pleasure
N’autre bien qu’on puist sentir or any other good that one could feel
N’imaginer or imagine which does not seem to me worthless
Qui ne me samble languir, whenever your sweetness wants to sweeten my bitterness.
Quant vo douceur adoucir vuet mon amer: Therefore I want to praise
Dont loer et aourer and adore and fear you,
Et vous cremier, tout souffrir, suffer everything,
Tout conjoir, Tout endurer experience everything, endure everything
Vueil plus que je ne desir Guerredonner. more than I desire any reward.
Foy porter . . . I want to stay faithful . . .
Vous estes le vray saphir You are the true sapphire
Qui puet tous mes maus garir et terminer. that can heal and end all my sufferings,
Esmeraude a resjoir, the emerald which brings rejoicing,
Rubis pour cuers esclarcir et conforter. the ruby to brighten and comfort the heart.
Vo parler, vo regarder, Your speech, your looks,
Vo maintenir, font fuir et enhair et despiter Your bearing, make one flee and hate and detest
Tout vice et tout bien cherir et desirer all vice and cherish and desire all that is good.
Foy porter . . . I want to stay faithful. . .

Translated by Paul Brians

Dame, je suis cilz/Fins cuers doulz/Fins cuers doulz, from The Mirror of Narcissus, Hyperion CDA66087, track 2.

The multitextual motets of the 14th Century seem very strange to modern ears, but in that time it made sense to create polyphony by layering one verse of a monophonic song on top of another to produce harmony. Here there are three voices. The Tenor is repeated over and over while the other verses are sung. The whole idea of courtly love was for the lover to present himself as a loyal servant to his lady. If he obeyed her every wish and loyally kept secret their connection, after a long period of trial she might legitimately take pity on him and console him with love-making. However, if she postponed this healing consolation too long, he might die; and poets often used the threat of such a death to exert pressure on the ladies to whom they were supposedly utterly submissive. It was a not uncommon form of emotional blackmail to tell a woman, “You can either commit adultery with me or effectively commit murder by refusing; which is it to be?” One wonders whether this worked in real life, but in poetry it is routine. Note how in the Motetus the poet says that all his good qualities come from loving her. How does the Triplum present the poet as a martyr?

Dame, je sui cilz qui vueil endurer Lady, I am one of those who willingly endures
Vostre voloir, tant com porray durer: your wishes, so long as I can endure;
Mais ne cuit pas que longuement l’endure but I do not think I can endure it for long
Sans mort avoir, quant vous m’estes si dure without dying, since you are so hard on me
Que vous volés qu’ensus de vous me traie, as if you wanted to drive me away from you,
Sans plus veioir la tres grant biauté veraie so I should never again see the great and true beauty
De vo gent corps, qui tant a de valour of your gentle body, which has such worth
Que vous estes des bonnes la millour. that you are of all good women the best.
Las! einssi ay de ma mort exemplaire, Alas! thus I imagine my death.
Mais la doleur qu’il me me convendra traire But the pain I shall have to bear
Douce seroit, se un tel espoir avoie would be sweet, if I could only hope,
Qu’avant ma mort par vo gré vous revoie. that before my death, you let me see you again.
Dame, et se ja mes cuers riens entreprent Lady, if ever my heart undertakes anything
Dont mes corps ait honneur n’avancement, which may honor or profit my heart,
De vous venra, com lonteins que vos soie, it will come from you, however far you may be,
Car ja sans vous que j’aim tres loyaument, for never without you, whom I love very loyally,
Ne sans Amours, emprendre nel saroie. nor without Love, could I undertake it or know it.
Fins cuers doulz, on me deffent Sweet noble heart, I am forbidden
De par vous que plus ne voie to ever see you again
Vostre doulz viaire gent your fair sweet face
Qui d’amer m’a mis en voie; which put me on the path of love;
Mais vraiement, je ne sçay but truly I do not know
Comment je m’en attendray how I can expect
Que briefment morir ne doie: not to have to die soon.
Et s’il m’en faut abstenir And if I must abstain
Pour faire vostre plaisir, to give you pleasure,
Ou envers vous faus seroie, or else be untrue to you,
S’aim trop mieus ma loyauté then I would rather keep my loyalty
Garder et par vostre gré and according to your will
Morir, se vos cuers l’ottroie, die, if your heart wishes it,
Qu’encontre vostre voloir, than against your will
Par vostre biauté veioir, to receive complete joy
Recüsse toute joie by viewing your beauty.
Fins cuers doulz, joliete, Sweet noble heart, pretty lady,
Amouretes m’ont navré; I am wounded by love
Por ce sui mas et pensis, so that I am sad and pensive,
Si n’a en moy jeu ne ris, and have no joy or mirth,
Car a vous, conpaignete, for to you, my sweet companion,
Ay mon cuer einsi doné. I have thus given my heart.
Repeat Trans. Paul Brians

Douce dame jolie

A virelai is a lively dance form. Although the text of this poem reads as dolefully as the other Machaut pieces, its delightfully lilting music belies its text. Note again the tight and intricate rhyming of the original. Again the opening image is the feudal domination the lady exerts over her beloved. By now you know what the lover is asking for when he begs her “pity.” What is the message of this last stanza?

From Kate Farrell: Art & Love: An Illustrated Anthology of Love Poetry. New York: Bulfinch Press, 1990.

Dante Alighieri: Sonnet

Lapo Gianni and Guido Cavalcante were friends of Dante’s. In this poem from La Vita Nuova, he fancifully imagines that they might escape in a magic ship on an endless voyage of love. Tragically, his Beatrice died young, as did Guido’s Giovanna (“Vanna” is a nickname). In the Divine Comedy Dante later imagined meeting her in an altogether more serious way when he described her guiding him through Heaven. The translation “whose name on the list is number thirty” is misleading: it should be something like “who is the best of the top thirty.” Dante was influenced by the courtly love style, and carried on his life-long love for the married Beatrice while being himself married to another woman. According to his own account, they never consummated the relationship. It consisted entirely of his adoring her from afar and–most important–writing poetry about her. What effect does knowing this background have on your interpretation of the poem?

From Wendy Mulford, ed.: Love Poems by Women. New York: Fawcett, 1991.

La Comtesse de Dia: I Must Sing of That

There were few women troubadours (some twenty are known), but the most famous of them was the Countess of Dia. We know little about her life, but this song is the only female troubadour song to survive with music intact. Like much male troubadour poetry, this is a lament of unrequited love. Deceived and betrayed suggests that he has been unfaithful to her. Seguin and Valensa were the lovers in a now-lost romance. Like many other troubadour songs, it ends with a threat, this one rather veiled. Other translations render the fourth line of the third stanza as “it is not right that another love. . . .” What are the main arguments she uses to get him to return her love?

Anonymous: Dawn Song

A “Dawn Song” is a standard Medieval form common in Provence, France, and Germany, in which a pair of lovers lament the coming of the dawn, which means that they must part. Often the woman is married, but that does not seem to be the case here. What evidence is there, at least, that this couple is not married to each other?

Christine de Pisan: A Sweet Thing Is Marriage

Christine de Pisan (or Pizan), born in Venice to the chief physician of Charles V of France, was married at fifteen and widowed at twenty-five. She wrote extensively defending women and arguing for their intelligence and abilities. Her poetry consists of posthumous tributes to her dead husband. What qualities did she especially admire in her husband? His speech to her implies that his love for her is making him better: a common courtly love idea.

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz: From A Satirical Romance

This Mexican nun actually belongs with the Renaissance writers, but her language is typically Medieval. What unusual image does she use to express the flowing of her love to her jealous lover?

From Kate Farrell: Art & Love: An Illustrated Anthology of Love Poetry. New York: Bulfinch Press, 1990.

I can’t hold you and I can’t leave you

How does the poet propose to deal with her ambiguous feelings about her lover? The last stanza implies that if he would be wholehearted in his love for her, she could be equally wholehearted in loving him.

More study guides for Love in the Arts: